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The History of Copyright, Part 1: The Battle of the Book

This is the first of a three part series on the history of copyright. We will be publishing one post each week.

Image: The Ormsby Psalter by Cea. (CC BY 2.0).

We want to reward creators for their work, but we also want society to enjoy the benefits of their creative output. Copyright is the framework we have built to promote these two objectives, but the two often come into conflict. The tensions between the competing interests date back to at least 6th Century Ireland and the Battle of the Book.

Copyright is only necessary if one person has something worth copying and another has the means to copy it. Today, making a perfect copy of nearly any work requires just the click of a mouse. Copying has not always been so easy. In the 6th Century, copies of books were made by monks, who obsessively transcribed volume after volume by hand, one letter at a time. The difficulty, time, and expense of producing even one copy were prohibitive. But just like today, if there is demand for content, copies will be made.

Irish monks were known for creating beautiful illuminated manuscripts, and their work preserved important works through the Dark Ages. St. Finnian, an especially influential monk, had amassed a large collection of rare books at his monastery. His collection included the Vulgate Psalter – the first Latin translation of the Bible to reach Ireland.

Finnian allowed St. Columba, his former student and by that time an influential monk in his own right, access to the Vulgate to study it. Columba had other plans. Without asking Finnian’s permission, he quickly made a copy of the Vulgate (or as quickly as he could with quill and ink, one letter at a time). Columba intended to have his own students make multiple copies of his copy so the Vulgate could be widely distributed.

Finnian was outraged. He wanted to monopolize the power and prestige that came with having the only copy of such an important text. He also feared that a copy made so quicky would contain errors that could corrupt the meaning of the text. He demanded that Columba return the copy.

Columba refused. He felt this was his duty as a scholar and missionary to spread the Vulgate. He also made an argument familiar to today’s copyfighters: Finnian still had his copy, so Columba had done him no harm.

Finnian brought the dispute to Diarmait mac Cerbhiall, High King of Ireland. Each presented their argument. The High King found in Finnian’s favour, holding that: “To every cow belongs its calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy.” He directed Columba to return the copy to Finnian.

The High King’s decision was heavily influenced by political concerns (PDF link): the delicate balance between rival clans and the rapid growth of Christianity at the expense of pagan religions.

The Vulgate decision provided the spark that ignited the underlying political tinders. Rejecting the ruling, Columba led a rebellion against the High King. The High King turned his army against Columba and his followers in the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne, also known as the Battle of the Book. When the dust settled after the battle, Columba was defeated and the High King claimed to have killed 3,000.

Today’s copyright wars are significantly less bloody, but the same tensions run high between rightsholders who want to control the value of their work and copiers who want to see it more widely distributed. The lesson to be drawn from the Battle of the Book is that it has always been hard to strike the proper balance.

Today, it would be easy to say the High King got it wrong. Finnian’s version of the Vulgate is lost to time, and Columba’s copy can be found in the library of the Royal Irish Academy. We can only imagine what other great works were lost to the chilling effects of the High King’s decision.

But what if the High King decided differently? The monks may have been free to transcribe more liberally; great works may have been more widely shared and preserved for the present day. But with what impact on creators after the development of the printing press?

Part 2 of the series on the history of copyright will examine the copyrighted work in the age of mechanical reproduction.