2010 marks the 300th anniversary of the Statute of Anne, the English legislation that ushered in the modern era of copyright law. The Statute of Anne is celebrated for a number of reasons, and perhaps foremost among them is its rejection of copyright as an instrument of censorship.

Before Parliament enacted the Statute, the distribution of books was controlled by the government through royal charters, which granted monopolies over printing and empowered the chartered firms to seize unauthorized books and bring their publishers before the courts. The Statute of Anne put an end to this practice and replaced it with a system of exclusive rights for individual authors, with the goal being “the Encouragement of Learned Men to Compose and Write useful Books.”

Despite this shift, the use of copyright law as an instrument of censorship did not die out in 1710. Instead, censorship continued in at least two ways: (1) direct censorship arising from courts’ judgments about the immorality of certain publications; and (2) indirect censorship through courts’ embrace of lawsuits in which the copyright owner was motivated by a desire to suppress expression rather than disseminate it. Here I examine the first form of censorship, leaving the second for a future essay. [...]

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