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Usually, when a book is published, it reflects the original creative work of scholars, authors and editors who deserve the benefit of that work. So naturally it’s understood that other parties are not supposed to simply re-print and sell that work as if it were their own, competing unfairly with the parties who did the work and earned the right to the benefit of that work.

But when the Talmud was first produced on a movable-type printing press, it was accompanied by the assertion that nobody else was to print the Talmud for a certain period. This was not the usual assertion of creators’ right to the benefit of their work. The people asserting the right were not the authors of the Talmud, and they were not trying to prevent others from using their work at all. It was a more general ban on completely independent work that would compete to the detriment of the one asserting the right. It was as if I decided to sell ice cream and announced that nobody else was to sell ice cream, because that competition would make it hard for me to make money.

I feel that I cannot stress this distinction enough.

Today, when ArtScroll printed the Ramban’s commentary on the Torah, for example, they did some sort of research to decide upon a “best” Hebrew text of that commentary. They paid a team of translators to produce an English translation. Naturally they expect that nobody else will simply reprint the ArtScroll book and sell it in competition with ArtScroll. But they did not announce that nobody else is allowed to print any other edition of the Ramban’s commentary on the Torah. It seems clear enough that such a ban (on other, independent publications of the commentary) would be advantageous to ArtScroll and help them reap a greater profit on their work. But they just don’t assert such a right.

My question is, how and when did this type of assertion go out of fashion? Were the original printings of the Talmud the only examples? Do we know of other publishers who sought such authorization from rabbis and were told that they did not have such a right to keep others from competing with them?

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    Is this a Judaism question? Was the same sort of thing happening in the rest of the world?
    – Double AA
    Jun 12 at 20:36
  • @Double AA I don't know if the same thing happened amongst non-Jews -- do you? -- but in either case my question is about our practice. If I asked the marriage age, that would be a Judaism question although non-Jews face the same question. No?
    – Chaim
    Jun 12 at 20:59
  • The first printed Talmud was by a Christian named Bomberg. He applied to the government in Venice for the right to operate his printing press (he even bribed officials to obtain this privelege). I think any attempt to protect his product was more a function of those specific economic-political dynamics than any Jewish ethos about book publication. Jun 12 at 22:09
  • @Deuteronomy There were letters written by prominent rabbis and printed inside some early printed Talmuds, including R' Akiva Eiger and the Vilna printing, announcing such monopolies. So I think the question stands.
    – Chaim
    Jun 12 at 22:12
  • @Chaim R. Aqiva Eiger lived a few hundred years after the earliest printings of the Talmud (which was the subject of your query). It seems you are asking about the protections of the Vilna vs Slavuta Shas. Might I suggest editing your post to better reflect your focus? Jun 12 at 22:24

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In the days when Rabbinic authority in Europe was far more centralized, it was common that they would decree under power of cherem that publications of important works would be protected for a certain amount of time, so that the sefer would be spread as far as possible, and its author would recoup his expenses. Their authority to do so was based on the general authority of Rabbis to make decrees for the benefit of their community.

For example, when the Tosafos Yom Tov was first published, the Rabbis of Prague (including the Shelah Hakadosh) decreed with a cherem that no one could print any other edition of Mishna with any commentary for four years.

When the printers of the Sulzbach Shas violated such a cherem, the Noda BiYehuda declared anyone who purchased a volume of that edition during the next fifteen years would be in cherem. Source

Nowadays, there is no central governing body with that kind of authority, so the question of whether such rules would be appropriate nowadays is only academic.

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  • 1. The first link goes to a Wikipedia article about the Council of Four Lands -- Greater Poland, Little Poland, Galicia (with Podolia) and Volhynia. Was Prague within their jurisdiction? 2. The links at "common" and at "decreed" seem to go to the same place. Is that what you intended? 3. Your point seems to be that the issuance of bans petered for purely procedural reasons rather than the sort of argument against bans attributed to Rabbi Mordechai Benet in Rabbi Israel Schneider’s article. How do you know that this is true? The book "The Making of a Godol" was pulled within the last few years.
    – Chaim
    Jun 17 at 12:38
  • 1. " The Levush was a Rabbi in Prague, Lublin, Horodna and Posen, but most importantly he was a member of the Vaad Arba Aratzos – the Council of the Four Lands." torahmusings.com/2007/01/protecting-our-children-halachic
    – N.T.
    Jun 17 at 20:37
  • 2. I quoted two different things from that document.
    – N.T.
    Jun 17 at 20:38
  • 3. I can't comment without seeing the article. The bans you referred to in your question were for the commercial purposes. The ban in your comment was due to disagreement with the content, so different story,
    – N.T.
    Jun 17 at 20:40

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