The phrase a licence to print money denotes a very lucrative commercial activity, regarded as requiring little effort—cf. also history of ‘money tree’ and ‘to shake the money tree’.
The earliest occurrences that I have found are American English and refer to owners of professional baseball teams.
The first is from the column Playing the Field, by Dink Carroll, published in the sports section of The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) of Wednesday 19th May 1943:
We have been reading a piece in a Los Angeles paper1 about the probable new alignment of cities in the major leagues when the war is over.
“When the war is over, Los Angeles—and San Francisco, too—MUST have major league franchises if the game is to prosper,” says the article. […]
“The two big cities on the coast are strictly first-class towns. As one big promoter put it, ‘I’d rather have a big league franchise in Los Angeles than a licence to print money’.”
1 I have not found the Los Angeles newspaper referred to.
The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from the column Kinsella’s Corner, by Jack Kinsella, published in the sports section of The Ottawa Citizen (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) of Tuesday 29th April 1958. Walter O’Malley (1903-1979), the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had moved this team to Los Angeles; the Los Angeles City Council had agreed that O’Malley acquire land at Chavez Ravine for the construction of the Dodgers’ stadium; however, this approval was conditioned on a referendum:
O’Malley has practically been handed a licence to print money, but it won’t do him any good if the citizens decide to veto his Chavez Ravine deal come June 3. That’s when a referendum will be held to determine whether the Dodgers stay in LA or start packing again.
In British English, the phrase was originally used to characterise the franchises that the Independent Television Authority (ITA) granted for running commercial television stations.
Associated Television made a profit in the year ended 30 April of £3,665,909 before taxation, vindicating Mr Prince Littler2’s year-old prophecy of greater success and giving some substance to a remark by the chairman of the “Daily Mirror”3 that the grant of a television station was a licence to print money.
2 The English theatre proprietor and impresario Prince Frank Littler (born Prince Frank Richeux – 1901-1973) was a major shareholder in Associated Television.
3 It was the British publisher Cecil Harmsworth King (1901-1987) who was Chairman of The Daily Mirror Newspapers, Ltd., at that time.
The second-earliest British-English occurrence that I have found is from an article by Robert Ray about the franchise for running a commercial television station in Northern Ireland, published in the Belfast Telegraph (Belfast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland) of Monday 13th October 1958:
I think it is probably desirable that the Government, when it comes to the question of making an additional waveband available, should consider sharing the third programme between the B.B.C. and ITV.
The public would then have a safeguard against any really serious trade depression that might hit ITV.
All this may seem unnecessarily gloomy, but I feel that a company spokesman who referred recently to his contract with the Authority as “a licence to print money” painted a picture that would have had a much more natural look about it had it been given at least some cloud effect.
THE VARIANT A PERMIT TO PRINT MONEY
The earliest occurrence that I have found of the variant a permit to print money is from The Sports Parade, by Braven Dyer, published in the Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California, USA) of Wednesday 24th December 1947:
Santa Claus has been scurrying around trying to locate special presents for some of our prominent sports personalities, such as—
Postmaster Mike Fanning: A few letters to deliver.
Doc Strub4: A permit to print money.
4 Charles Henry ‘Doc’ Strub (1884-1958) was an American dentist and entrepreneur who built and owned Santa Anita Park racetrack in Arcadia, California, and was president and partner of the San Francisco Seals baseball club.
The second-earliest use of a permit to print money that I have found occurs in the same context; it is from Sport Sparks, by Lou Smith, published in The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio, USA) of Saturday 25th December 1948—Noah Schechter was the Cincinnati Variety Club’s press agent:
’Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house—oh, well, you get the idea. That stylish-stout gentleman in red made it again last night. It matters not whether he had a chimney. Santa Claus climbed down it last night.
Now what do you suppose the “jolly old elf” left beneath the Christmas tree for members of our sports family? Leave us have a look:
Noah Schechter—A permit to print money.
Postmaster Charley Bocklet—A few letters to deliver.
USE OF THE PHRASE BY ROY THOMSON
It is often said that the Canadian-born British media proprietor Roy Herbert Thomson (1894-1976), 1st Baron Thomson of Fleet, compared to a licence to print money any commercial television franchise—or that he specifically used the phrase of the franchise, granted to him on Wednesday 30th May 1956, for running a commercial television station in Central Scotland.
For example, during the debate that took place at the House of Commons on Wednesday 7th May 1969, on a Bill to set up a Greater London Radio Authority for the purpose of providing local radio programmes in and for Greater London, William Molloy, MP for Ealing North, said the following about the commercial aspect of the Bill:
People who enter into this sort of activity are not primarily concerned with either the status or the standing of the service they provide, but, quite rightly, are in it to make money. Here I congratulate Lord Thomson of Fleet, who said that a licence to run commercial television was a licence to print money. He has never retracted that remark.
However, according to some, Roy Thomson used the variant a permit to print money. For example, this is what Alan Harvey wrote in The Ottawa Citizen (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) of Thursday 5th December 1963:
The franchise for commercial TV in central Scotland comes up for reallocation at the end of July, 1964, and two of the big bidders are Lord Beaverbrook and the present licence-holder, Roy Thomson.
Newspaper magnate Thomson acquired the franchise, covering about four-fifths of Scotland, in 1956, and soon after made his celebrated remark that the licence was like a permit to print money. From the start, the property was a big money-maker.
In 1977, an advertising campaign for Mobil North Sea Limited consisted of a series of seven information broadsheets. Under the headline “It’s hardly a licence to print money.”, one of these broadsheets explained the licensing process.
This is this broadsheet, as published in The Press and Journal (Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scotland) of Wednesday 12th October 1977:
When a licence is first issued, it is only valid for six to seven years. At the end of the initial term, the licence can be extended for 30 to 40 years. But the licence-holder must, at the same time, turn back to the government a major part of the acreage covered by the licence. If it wishes, the government may elect to offer this ‘relinquished’ acreage to all applicants in subsequent licensing rounds. The licence lays down a yearly rent for the block and general regulations governing exploration and producing activities.
“It’s hardly a licence to print money”, comments Mobil lawyer Vivien Gall. “On the contrary, meeting the terms and regulations requires you to spend vast sums of money, but with no assurance that you will ever get any of it back”.