An ordinance of the Stationers' Company in 1554, confirmed by royal charter in 1557, established that all printers had to be members of the company; and had to present each book to the Wardens and pay the fee for registration before they might publish.
Registration was finally given a statutory basis by the Copyright Act of 1842 (5 & 6 Vic c45), which for the first time made registration voluntary, although it was necessary before an action could be brought for infringement. Following the 1842 Act, registration at Stationers' Hall (a condition of protection in all copyright legislation since 1707) was re-enacted.
The Act of 1842 extended the term of copyright to 42 years or seven years after the death of the author, whichever was the longer, but it covered only literary and commercial works. It was supplemented in 1862 by the Fine Arts Copyright Act (25 & 26 Vic c68) which provided for paintings and photographs. Earlier, eighteenth century acts for engravings and other works remained in force, and the provisions of the 1833 Dramatic Works Act were extended (by the 1842 Act) to cover musical compositions.
Throughout the period during which registration was necessary to establish copyright, there was widespread disregard of the procedure, partly because of the expense of the fees payable to the Stationers for registration, but more importantly to evade the obligation to provide complimentary copies for the copyright libraries.
The situation was further complicated by the development of international copyright. In 1846 the first copyright treaty was signed with Prussia after an act permitting such treaties had been passed in 1844 (7 & 8 Vic c12). Various treaties with other countries followed until the signing of the Berne Convention in 1886, amended, generally in favour of the author, several times since. International copyright agreements set down the minimum requirements and provided protection for foreigners on the same basis as the nationals of the country concerned. In Britain this meant that foreign works also had to be registered at Stationers' Hall.
The Copyright Act 1911 (1 & 2 Geo V c46) got rid of the need for registration by providing full copyright protection if the ownership could be established in court. The registers were not in fact abolished by the 1911 Act - indeed registration under the 1842 Act continued until 1924 when Canada ratified the Berne Convention of 1906.
The 1911 Act additionally laid down a standard term for copyright in an author's works (until 50 years after his death, or after publication in the case of posthumously published or crown copyright works), and gave protection to all works not covered by the Patents and Designs Act 1907 (7 Edw VII c29) although the dividing line could not always be clear.
After the final expiration of statutory registration in 1924, the Stationers' Company set up a new, voluntary, register which is still maintained, and is supplemented by deposited copies of the works registered (although these are destroyed after seven years, when their registration expires). This service is particularly valuable for works, such as lectures and songs, which are not published in printed form, and of which the proprietor wishes to establish ownership.
Statutory registration at Stationers' Hall ceased (except for works first published in the self-governing Dominions) on 30 June 1912, and altogether on 31 December 1923. This was in accordance with the Imperial Copyright Act 1911 which gave the benefit of protection to all matter entitled to copyright without the formality of registration.