Response to Freedom
The lapse of the Printing Act was by no means an unmixed blessing for the trade. Indeed, the copy-owners saw little merit in it. They were, on the whole, law-abiding men who had never been troubled by the censors, or who, when the occasion arose, had taken advantage of the services of the trade publishers to distribute any doubtful or surreptitious material. The fact that copies no longer had to be licensed was neither a benefit nor a disadvantage to them. What did concern them greatly, however, were the unintended consequences of the lapse of the Act. The comprehensive nature of the 1662 Act and its successors, effectively embodying in the statute law the customs of the trade, had provided the same protective wall around the copy-owners’ privileges which their predecessors had enjoyed through their control of the Stationers’ Company. The regulations which had evolved since the middle of the sixteenth century were all enshrined in the Act: controls on numbers of master printers and apprentices, the London monopoly and, above all, registration and control of copy-ownership. It was this last issue which was the most important, for without some form of protection for copies there would be, as was direly predicted throughout the 1690s, chaos in the trade.