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

from the a-history-lesson dept

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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Comments on “The Very First Copyright Trial, In 6th Century Ireland, Sounds Really Familiar”

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william (profile) says:

Interesting story.

While we see as an argument on how ridiculous the current RIAA vs People or MPAA vs People, I am afraid that they’ll use this as an argument on how the court has upheld their copyright for hundreds of years.

I personally think there will require more of a generational swap before any major changes will happen. The problem has always been that people who grew up before the computer/Internet age has really no understanding of how the digital world works AND they are in control of the material legally. Remember the “a series of tubes” from Sen. Stevens that everyone was having fun with awhile ago? While it’s fun, it’s a sad, Sad, SAD reality that we netizens facing in today’s world that people with no real understanding are in control (or attempt to control) of what they don’t understand.

It sounds bad this way, but in the worst case we’ll have to wait till they all die off…

It’s evident in the music industry that older bands seems to have to more hostile approach to this whole Internet/pirating/copyright stuff while younger bands are using the Internet to promote and help their own career.

Lars Hater says:

Re: Stopped listening to Metallica

When Lars Ulrich went off on his many rants while in court years ago, I was utterly disgusted. I haven’t downloaded a single Metallica song after that, legally or ortherwise. Music copyrights should only come into effect when someone tries to profit off of the copyrighted material. Plus, bands have always made their money from live performances anyway.

Petréa Mitchell says:

Welcome to a new urban legend

A look at the disclaimer on the linked blog post and the footnotes on the paper shows that this story is almost certainly false. With the Techdirt imprimatur, however, a lot of people are going to be repeating it as absolute fact.

…I suppose that’s a win from your point of view, but it diminishes my respect for this blog.

dorp says:

Re: Welcome to a new urban legend

A read of Mike’s post would tell you that he does not take it seriously either:

I have my doubts about the whole story having happened at all. But, since this is just for fun, let’s keep going.

You saved me the trouble of losing respect for your comments since you are at 0 possible respect right now. Thanks.

Petréa Mitchell says:

Re: Re: Welcome to a new urban legend

Yeah, I saw that. It’s not enough. Unfortunately, one of the things you learn from studying usability and the associated psychological issues is that the fact of a story appearing in a trusted source (or even one that isn’t trusted much, sometimes) has immensely more impact than mild doubt expressed 2/3rds of the way down.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Welcome to a new urban legend

One of the things you learn from discussing topics with people other than morons in a hurry, is that you read the whole opinion and don’t have knee jerk reactions to it. The “psychological issues” that you are referring to always deal with information presented as short snippets, not in depth discussions. So yes, if you would like to be a part of the mob in a hurry, you are free to not take in the skepticism.

Richard says:

Re: Welcome to a new urban legend

The original story may not have happened (as I commented earlier).
The real point is that at various times between then and now the story was invented and elaborated in various ways.

My reading is that the likely true sequence of events is as follows.

1. A real battle involving St Columba relating to another issue “It was in revenge of the killing of Curnan, son of Aedh, son of Eochaidh Tirmcharna, while under the protection of Colum Cille,” see

2. Sometime (probably in the 12th century) an Irish monastery acquires an ancient manuscript (actually most likely dating from a few years after Columba’s time) and decides that it can become a centre of pilgrimage by claiming that St Columba did the copying.

3. Sometime later again the story of the manuscript is embroidered to include the “copyright dispute”. This probably involved several iterations as the story is called to serve the purposes of one side and then the other in the earliest disputes over concepts of copyright probably in the 16th and 17th centuries.

It doesn’t have to be a true story from the 6th century to be interesting. It can also be interesting and relevant as a made up story from the 16th or 17th century.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Welcome to a new urban legend

A look at the disclaimer on the linked blog post and the footnotes on the paper shows that this story is almost certainly false. With the Techdirt imprimatur, however, a lot of people are going to be repeating it as absolute fact.

Petrea, I’m not sure what your complaint is here. I said the story was likely made up. But it’s still a fun story.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Welcome to a new urban legend

As Exhibit A in support, may I point out the comments by nelsoncruz and Yogi.

Both of which note, accurately that the story shows this is nothing new. As others have pointed out even if the story didn’t happen, it HAS been a part of Irish cultural mythology for hundreds of years. Meaning that the basic story itself is not new and still instructive.

Petréa Mitchell says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Welcome to a new urban legend

But both of whom appear to believe that the story is absolutely true, which it isn’t.

“It’s fake but still proves my point” doesn’t cut it. You have plenty of true stories at your disposal to demonstrate the ridiculousness at issue. You’re doing a disservice to all the people who support you by endorsing this fable.

If the RIAA had come up with a legend of similar provenance to show harm being done by having less copyright protection, you’d be jumping all over them with a headline like “RIAA Spreads Phony Irish History”, and a gloat that since they’re using made-up stories to support themselves that must mean they’ve run out of true ones. And maybe a few choice words about dragging religion into it.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Welcome to a new urban legend

If the RIAA repeated a myth and said “ok, we know this never happened, but it shows that copyright is nothing new and we’re perfectly within our rights to protect our copyrights”, I doubt Mike would do what you’re doing:

Mike: Here’s this interesting story. It’s probably not true at all, but it’s been around for a long time.
You: That story isn’t true.
Mike: I know, I said that.
You: Yeah, but you didn’t say it enough.
Mike: I just said it twice now, what do you want from me?

Instead, he would probably acknowledge that 1) the idea of copyright has been around for quite a while and 2) record labels and others are well within their rights to enforce their copyrights. Where he would take it from there depends on exactly what he was responding to.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Re: Question

“What religion will Dark King Helmet force on us when he takes over America?”

Actually I am going to institute a freedom of religion statute but with severely ironhanded stipulations:

1. You dont’ get to preach your religion to anyone unless expressly invited to do so. This includes street corners, church signs/fliers, and Virgin Mary images found in Taco Bell Gorditas.

2. If you want to practice a religion, you must pass a basic test ON your religion (you can do this for multiple religions if you want). This means that if you want to be Catholic, you better know the good AND the bad the Church has done throughout history.

3. If you want to claim a religion, you MUST follow that religion. That means no more G.W. Bush “Hey I’m a Christian, and God told me to go to war” garbage, nor any Bill Clinton “I adhere to good conservative family values based on my faith, so come on in here and wax poetic on my man-sausage” shit either.

4. No more tax exempt status for religion. You want to run your faith like a business, you get taxed like a business. If you AREN’T running your faith like a business, than you ought not have much for me to tax anyway, so don’t worry about.

All will become clear soon, diabolic, as the time for takeover is nigh. But you seem like a faithful follower; perhaps you deserve a position in my Kingly Cabinet. How does Secretary of Imported Beers sound?

Richard says:

How much of this story is true....

Maybe not much,

The “earliest” source that I could find is the annals of the four masters – available here

I ‘m not sure how old the earliest surviving copy of this source really is. It is possible that the story about the book was inserted later to make a particular ancient book into an object of pilgrimage and hence a source of income for its owners by claiming that it was copied by St Columba. This would have happened in about the 12th Century – when it would have been already 500+ years old.

However this – and other early sources – clearly seem be anti-copyright. The phrase “To every cow belongs its calf” is described as a false sentence. In some versions Columba’s copying is supposed to be have been assisted by a miraculous light – putting God in the anti-copyright camp.
St. Columba’s speech against Diarmaid (the author of the false sentence) is worth reading.

1. O God, wilt thou not drive off the fog,

[gap: extent: 1 line]

which envelopes our number,
The host which has deprived us of our livelihood,
2. The host which proceeds around the carns!
He is a son of storm who betrays us.
My Druid,—he will not refuse me,—
is the Son of God, and may he side with me;
3. How grandly he bears his course,
the steed of Baedan before the host;
Power by Baedan of the yellow hair
will be borne from Ireland on him the steed.

God also seems to have been on the side of Columba in the battle since 3000 fell on Diarmaid’s side and only 1 on Columba’s.

The ancient annals do not attribute Columba’s exile to guilt over the book – this seems to be a later invention – probably the pro-copyright lobby trying to put a different spin on the story.

a lawyer says:

reliability of court opinions

you can’t go by court opinions that are that old. at all. right now, there are multiple “reporters” of court cases, even though we only need 1. these were from a time when court reporters were very different from the ones you know now. once upon a time, there would actually be multiple different people designated to “report” the case to the public. up until the mid 1800s, there were massive differences between cases as reported by each one of these reporters. what was happening was some differences would just be from one person mishearing exactly what was said, but there were many cases where people would outright put in bullshit for whoever paid them the most.

that practice slowly started to disappear as court opinions became more widespread and people would get caught. also, courthouses started rules of procedure that required judges to deliver written opinions. they could get their own secretary or clerk to do the actual writing but it had to be written BEFORE it was delivered in open court.

this was rampant up through the 1850s, and it’s why legal citations even for supreme court opinions still have multiple different citations available for each one.

and then you have problems in translations. most courts dont do official translations into other languages.

the bottom line is that drawing ANY conclusions from this is worthless.

Bubba Gump (profile) says:

Let me provide an example from the near future:

A “superhuman” with perfect recording capacity in his computer-enhanced brain reads a book.

Of course, he now has a perfect photographic copy of the book in his memory. His normal daily brain backup is performed and a copy of the “book” now resides on his backup system. Naturally, to save his personality in case of disaster, he disseminates copies of his backups all over the world (so that his personality/memories can be restored).

Seeing that he has led a good and honest life, he sees no reason to encrypt or protect the contents of his memory backups, so they are perfectly accessible to anyone with a copy. His facebook friends from around the world (yes, facebook is still around in the future, scarily) like to review his memories from time to time and happen upon the book.

Exactly what form a “piracy” or “theft” has just occurred?
How do you stop this? SHOULD you stop this?

If I could memorize a book, then write it all down verbatim or recite it from memory to my child, have I somehow stolen something?

Josh (profile) says:


Since you bring it up, the copied Gutenberg bibles ran into some trouble initially, as well. When cartloads of them arrived in medieval villages full of ignorant peasants, they were sometimes burned and those delivering them killed. They believed that only the devil could have made such exact identical copies of the book and their souls were in danger.

PRMan (profile) says:

The irony of this

Ironically, there wouldn’t be a Bible at all if people hadn’t “violated copyright”. They all copied the scriptures in mass from someone else’s copy.

And if they truly believe in spreading the Gospel, shouldn’t there be no limits on spreading information about Jesus?

Also, I found this on the Wikipedia entry on Druids:

In the lives of saints and martyrs, the druids are represented as magicians and diviners. In Adamnan’s vita of Columba, two of them act as tutors to the daughters of Lóegaire mac Néill, the High King of Ireland, at the coming of Saint Patrick. They are represented as endeavouring to prevent the progress of Patrick and Saint Columba by raising clouds and mist. Before the battle of Culdremne (561) a druid made an airbe drtiad (fence of protection?) round one of the armies, but what is precisely meant by the phrase is unclear. The Irish druids seem to have had a peculiar tonsure. The word druí is always used to render the Latin magus, and in one passage St Columba speaks of Christ as his druid {the passage in an earlier comment – PRMan}. Similarly, a life of St Beuno states that when he died he had a vision of ‘all the saints and druids’.

Richard says:

Re: The irony of this

“And if they truly believe in spreading the Gospel, shouldn’t there be no limits on spreading information about Jesus?”

The evangelist T. Austin Sparks believed this – and refused to copyright any of his work. It is thus all freely available here.

In the biographical section I found the following:

“He was insistent that his writings and tapes should not be copyrighted and as a result they are still freely available today and can be distributed in whatever way God leads.”

And there is an organisation “Christians against copyright”
with a website here

nelsoncruz (profile) says:

I sent this one to Mike too, but I guess someone bit me to it. True or not, its a fascinating story. We may think this is new, that the current disputes are from the internet age, but 1450 years ago they where debating access to knowledge, copies devaluing the originals, and the familiar property rhetoric! One demanded the right to make copies and spread them, the other demanded control of any copying of “his” book. Sounds familiar? Well it happened 1450 years ago!

I guess the RIAA and our governments are lucky the Columbas of today cant exactly raise an army, defeat them in battle and dethrone them. We’ll have to make do with the EFFs and Pirate Parties.

Mockingbird (profile) says:

The Four Masters were 17th century writers.

The early medieval annals record a controversy involving Columba and the right of sanctuary.

A 14th or 15th century source reports a controversy between Columba and Finnian “concerning a book” but gives no details.

The 16th century Irish life of Coumba then gives the familiar “copyright” version of the story.

My own hunch is that when the late medieval source reported a controversy “concerning a book” (de libro) this was a misspelling for “concerning a boy” (de libero,) that is, the writer was intending to repeat the old story about the violation of Columba’s sanctuary. The 16th century compiler of the Middle Irish Life of Columba then embellished the (mistaken) report of a controversy “concerning a book” into the form we now have.

But however that may be, the “to every cow its calf” story is not recorded in its present form before the 16th century.

Richard says:

Re: The book itself

or at least a book of similar age does exist. It is traditionally called the Cathach of St Columba.
I found the following at

“The Cathach was enclosed in a shrine in the mid twelfth century by Cathbar O’Donnell head of the O’Donnell Clan and Domnall McGroarty Abbot of Kells. The shrine was carried into battle by the McGroartys as a talisman, consistent with its psalter’s origins starting the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne (hence the name: Cathach = “Battler”). The manuscript was rediscovered in 1813, when the shrine was opened.”

However experts believe that it is probably a few years too recent to have been copied by St Columba. However it does seem to have been somehow associated with him and with the battle somewhat earlier than the 16th century.

Fentex says:


Repeating such a likely falsehood undermines your credibility immensely.

It is akin to forwarding spam and a terrible breach of etiquette in debate that diminishes your future credibility when arguing associated topics.

You cannot distant yourself from responsibility by the appending of a weak disclaimer. If something doesn’t bear repeating, don’t repeat it.

KrustyG (profile) says:

Fuzzy Memory

My memory is pretty poor at the best of times, so I can’t confirm the exact details of the story, but it has definitely been told to Irish children in school for many years.
The phrase “To every cow its calf, to every book its child-book” is well known throughout Ireland (which says nothing of whether it’s true or not, but does mean the story hasn’t been “cooked up” recently).
I can’t believe I never made the connection with the modern IP isues.

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