In the decades around 1500, printed music was of many kinds: liturgical chant, secular and sacred polyphony, devotional music, occasional music, works of music theory and music for instrumentalists, whether beginners or advanced performers. Those who paid for the printing of music also had many different reasons to request (or grant) a printing privilege. They might be a bishop attempting to enforce liturgical uniformity throughout his diocese, a printer or publisher trying to make a living from selling books, an instrumental teacher trying to protect his ability to derive a profit from selling his professional expertise, or a composer trying to establish his reputation.
The granting of a privilege was a legal act. It assumed the right to do so, and presupposed the existence of structures of authority and the right and ability of the granting authority to proceed against those who violated the terms of the privilege. The granting of a privilege not only gave the person holding the privilege a theoretical degree of protection; it also established a relationship between supplicant and patron, from which both could theoretically benefit. But establishing this relationship did not come cheap. Aside from the costs of applying for the privilege, a person who successfully sued another for violating an imperial privilege was normally obliged to render half of any damages to the imperial treasury. Applying for a privilege was thus a carefully calibrated commercial calculation.
This chapter thus attempts to trace the wide variety of forms and motivations in the granting of privileges through the sixteenth century. It analyses the kinds of music books for which privileges were sought and granted, and makes explicit comparisons with other non-musical books and other specialist media, such as engravings. It rejects earlier conceptions of privileges – promoted by Hansjörg Pohlmann and others – as an early form of copyright. We argue instead that privileges were intended not to protect intellectual property, but to incentivise publications that served the common good, and to protect the financial investment made in an edition. Hence they were most frequently held by composers who published their own works. Consequently, they were a ritualistic negotiation of authority between princely bureaucracy and the author, a negotiation that added value and presence to the authorised book. Finally, this chapter sets privileges in the context of the rise of methods of commercial risk management such as insurance.