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First Copyright Dispute: 560 AD, Celtic Ireland; Battle Ensues; 3000 people die

The Cathach/The Psalter of St. Columba

I just came across some interesting information about what is sometimes referred to as “the first copyright” dispute (h/t Kevin Glick). It concerns one of Ireland’s three patron saints, St. Colum Cille (521-597 AD) (the others being St. Patrick and St. Brigid). Colum Cille was given this name when he became a monk–the name meaning “Dove of the Church”. He is sometimes he is referred to as Colmcille or Columba, which is the Latin for Dove. At this time something a system called “Brehon law” was used to settle disputes.

As detailed in various sources,1 Colmcille lamented the shortage of books and thus devoted himself to transcribing them. As noted by Corrigan:

Wherever and whenever he could get access to the materials he would copy and encourage his monks to copy, study and disperse the copies of books to spread the teachings of the church. He was one of the earliest in the tradition of Irish monks committed to such a philosophy, credited with saving the church’s literary treasures during Europe’s Dark Ages, when book burning was a common practice amongst religious zealots.

Around this time (mid-550s AD), Colmcille’s former teacher and fellow monk, Finnian,

brought home a copy of the “Vulgate,” after a visit to Rome. The Vulgate was the definitive Latin translation of the bible done by St. Jerome about 100 years earlier. This was the first copy of the book to reach Ireland and generated some considerable excitement throughout the land.

(According to Corrigan, “There is some dispute … as to whether the book was a complete copy of the Vulgate, or just the Psalter or Book of Psalms. The Cathach of Columba now resides in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin and is thought by some to be the copy of the Psalter Colmcille made of Finnian’s manuscript but tests have dated this script to the 7th century.”) Colmcille was of course very interested, so he visited “his old teacher … in order to see it. Finnian, delighted to see him, willingly showed him the book, though he was generally very protective of it. … Whatever the circumstances of Colmcille’s initial encounter with the book and any conditions Finnian might have placed on his handling of it, it’s fairly clear that Colmcille decided to make a copy surreptitiously by night.”

When Finnian discovered this, he was not happy and demanded “Colmcille give him the copy he had made when it was finished. Colmcille was … enraged that an old man should presume to act as such a reluctant gatekeeper to a book, the sharing of which was crucially important to the future of the church in Ireland.”

So they decided to ask King Diarmid, High King of Ireland, to settle the dispute. Colmcille, in his defense, argued that he should be able to keep the copy of the book because it was important to spread this knowledge:

My friend’s claim seeks to apply a worn out law to a new reality. Books are different to other chattels (possessions) and the law should recognise this. Learned men like us, who have received a new heritage of knowledge through books, have an obligation to spread that knowledge, by copying and distributing those books far and wide. I haven’t used up Finnian’s book by copying it. He still has the original and that original is none the worse for my having copied it. Nor has it decreased in value because I made a transcript of it. The knowledge in books should be available to anybody who wants to read them and has the skills or is worthy to do so; and it is wrong to hide such knowledge away or to attempt to extinguish the divine things that books contain. It is wrong to attempt to prevent me or anyone else from copying it or reading it or making multiple copies to disperse throughout the land. In conclusion I submit that it was permissible for me to copy the book because, although I benefited from the hard work involved in the transcription, I gained no worldly profit from the process, I acted for the good of society in general and neither Finnian nor his book were harmed.

But the King ruled against him, failing to see the crucial distinction between scarce goods and nonscarce goods like knowledge and information:

I don’t know where you get your fancy new ideas about people’s property. Wise men have always described the copy of a book as a child-book. This implies that someone who owns the parent-book also owns the child-book. To every cow its calf, to every book its child-book. The child-book belongs to Finnian.

As Corrigan notes, “The ruling arguably triggered a series of events that led to the slaughter of the three thousand at Cooldrummon.”

Now this case is often trotted out nowadays as a justification for modern copyright. However, in light of discussions I’ve had with Jeff Tucker (since the original draft of this post) about this matter, it could be that the conventional account is heavily distorted. For one, Finnian was not the author of the book Colmcille copied. Thus even under modern copyright law Finnian would have no copyright claim against Colmcille–no more than I could sue someone who copied my Harry Potter novel for violating my copyright; I do not have any copyright in J.K. Rowling’s novel. This dispute is trotted out and called a copyright dispute for pro-IP propaganda purposes, since it was not a copyright dispute. That notion did not really develop until centuries later in England as a result of monarchical control of printing.

Second, Tucker believes it is highly unlikely that Colmcille could have copied the manuscript without the use of Finnian’s property–his labor, materials (ink, equipment, sheepskin), room and board. So that the physical copy of the copied manuscript was arguably the property of Finnian, not Colmcille, by standard property and contract principles. If this interpretation is correct, then the Colmcille-Finnian dispute should not be used to support modern copyright law.


  1. See especially Ray Corrigan, “Colmcille and the Battle of the Book: Technology, Law and Access to Knowledge in 6th Century Ireland” (2007) (pdf); also St. Columcille Division 4 – History (Ancient Order of Hibernians in America). For general background see also Joseph R. Peden, “Property Rights in Celtic Irish Law,” JLS 1, no 2 (1977). []
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