The Very First Copyright Trial, In 6th Century Ireland, Sounds Really Familiar

Chris pointed me down a delightful rabbit hole trying to understand a — potentially apocryphal — story concerning what may be the very first “trial” over “copyright” taking place in the middle of the 6th century in Ireland, involving St. Finnian of Moville and a former pupil of his, Saint Columba — also known as Colmcille or Colum Cille or a few other names, depending on where you look. The story Chris pointed me to is in French, but it eventually points to an English version of the story (pdf — which, sadly, does not indicate an author!) that not only suggests that this is the first such trial over the right to copy a book, but reflects some of the same arguments we’re still hearing today. Though, luckily for everyone, when Jammie Thomas or Joel Tenenbaum loses their lawsuit, it doesn’t eventually lead to 3,000 people dying, as happened in this particular story.

The short version of the story is that St. Columba, a monk, apparently led quite an interesting life. The pdf goes through a bunch of details, but at some point, he decided that the best way to spread Christianity and his own teachings would be to spread the important writings he came across:


Colmcille threw himself into these labours with a zeal few ordinary mortals could
match and amongst the tasks he attacked most passionately was the transcribing of
biblical manuscripts. A devoted scribe himself, he recognised the shortage of books
as one of the critical paths restricting the growth of the scholarship of the church, as
well as of his own band of followers. 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.

As this was happening, he became aware that his former teacher and friend, Finnian, had returned from Rome with the “Vulgate” — a Latin translation of the bible that had been done about 100 years earlier. Columba traveled to see is friend… and the book. Finnian gladly shared his treasure with Columba, but was still quite protective of it, and wasn’t keen on the whole “copying it for others’ bit. So, Columba took matters into his own hands and started surreptitiously copying the manuscript at night. He was eventually spotted, and a fight ensued, which the two former friends agreed to settle via arbitration, held in the court of Diarmaid, the High King of Ireland. Finnian argued for a basic form of copyright: claiming that the book was his “property” and any attempt at copying it violated his property rights. It was then that Columba allegedly made something like the following speech (which was, admittedly, loosely translated in the pdf above):


“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.”

I have to be honest: such a speech (even with the admittedly “loose” translation) seems so current that I have my doubts about the whole story having happened at all. But, since this is just for fun, let’s keep going.

According to the story in the pdf, the “trial” wasn’t exactly on a fair basis, as there were all sorts of separate political pressures on the king and his advisors, including some worries about by some druids that Columba might be too successful in spreading Christianity with such copied books. Think of the druids as the “recording industry” in this story, with Christianity I guess being the Napster of the sixth century. No surprise: the legacy industry had the ear of those in power, and used it to influence how the court would rule:


“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.”

Yup. The breakthrough “startups” have been losing such copyright battles for over a millennium apparently — though, of course, in the long run (thank you Gutenberg), it seems that the copiers eventually win out. So, while Napster may suffer in the courts of today, certain things, such as the spread of knowledge and content are eventually unstoppable.

And, oh yeah, the post script to the story, is that following this loss in “court” and the humiliation that came with it, there were a series of events that led to a real fight — the so-called “Battle of the Book” that left 3,000 dead, and despite being the victor in that battle, Columba was almost ex-communicated and then eventually (if temporarily) exiled from Ireland. But, then again, he also became a saint in retrospect. I can’t see the same happening for Tenenbaum or Thomas, but perhaps they’ll take some solace in knowing that the ridiculous fines put on them might not be quite as bad as what Columba faced.

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