Copyright in 561 AD


St-ColumbaMost scholars will tell you, quite correctly, that the very first modern copyright law was the Statute of Anne. which was passed in 1710 in the Kingdom of Great Britain (now the United Kingdom). Prior to its passing, copyright was handled more by giving monopolies to publishers. The Statute of Anne had term limits, namely 21 years and a familiar goal, to promote the printing of new works.

However, copyright as a principle existed well before that. In fact, in at least one case, it lead to a pitched battle that took thousands of lives.

Such is the case with the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne in 561 AD A bloody battle caused by a unique and potent blend of copyright and religion. Though the full story is actually the stuff of history books, here’s a heavily abridged version of what happened and why.

Saint Columba

Born in 521 AD in Donegal, Ireland Saint Columba spend most of his life studying in monastic schools in early Christian Ireland. He eventually became one of the “Twelve Deciples of Ireland”, a group of 12 that studied directly under St. Finnian. He also became a monk and an ordained priest.

However, sometime around 560 AD, he did something that was viewed as controversial. St. Finnian had come into possession of a new Psalter, or book of Psalms, and Columba copied it, intending to keep his copy of the work. St. Finnian disputed his right to do so and Columba, according to records, instigated a rebellion by the Clan Neill against King Diarmait of Ireland due to this dispute.

This lead to a Battle of Cúl Dreimhne in 561 AD. Reportedly, as many as 3,000 men lost their lives that day. Though it is not said who won the battle, it was Columba who was punished for it (so it seems to be safe to say the other side). There was talk of excommunicating Columba as a punishment for the lives lost, but instead, he was forced to leave Ireland and to convert as many new Christians as died on that day.

Columba traveled east from Ireland and eventually settled on the Isle of Iona, off the west coast of mainland Scotland, where he set up a new monastery. Though Columba’s buildings and creations have largely been destroyed, much of it due to viking invasions that would come later, Iona remains a sacred place to many and is the burial spot of Scottish kings, including Macbeth.

Why I Tell This Story

The reason I tell this story is pretty simple. We like to think of copyright as a very new thing. With the 300th anniversary of the Statute of Anne to take place next year, modern copyright has only been around a small portion of of recorded history.

However, these issues about copying have been with us for much longer. What can be copied? When can it be copied? Who can copy it? And for what reasons they can copy it? These are all questions that have plagued leaders of all stripes for at least 1400 years, likely since the dawn of the written language.

Though the story of Saint Columba is an extreme case, one where copying was mixed with religion to create an especially potent, and even deadly, argument, the issues were a fact of life then just as they are today.

The only thing that has changed since the time of Columba is that education has given nearly every person the ability to write and create their own works and technology has made it easier to copy and reproduce those creations. Remember, Columba had to copy the book by hand and only a learned few could read and write then.

Though copyright law itself has not been with us long, the issues it was designed to address have. at the very least under the surface.

Bottom Line

In the end, I just want to put things into perspective a bit. Rules forbidding copying have been around at least 1400 years, probably longer. Though the issues are heated and passionate today, I don’t believe anyone has been killed in a battle over the issue in quite some time.

Could one imagine though if the RIAA or MPAA had to deal with these kinds of tactics. If, rather than dealing with The Pirate Bay, they were dealing with actual pirates or, more to the point, leaders who could raise armies and launch rebellions.

It would be a very different world indeed and I think we’re all grateful that none of us have to take to the battle field to protect either our rights in our own work, or the right to use other works. Fortunately we have courts for those wars.

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  1. Well, actually not. While I'm not familiar with this particular story, it rings very untrue to me as a Ph.D. in medieval literature, and your broader conclusion just isn't supportable. Copyright issues have not been with us for 1400 years, and certainly not since the dawn of written language, at least not in anything like the modern form. It was unusual for even a name to be attached to a manuscript, and copying and recopying of texts was something that routinely occupied to time of most monks. That's why there have been widespread disputes about the authorship of a particular work–there was simply no widespread notion of copyright until early modern time.

  2. I agree completely this isn't copyright in its modern form. However, I would argue that, in many ways, the modern ideas of copyright, in many ways, morphed from these early disputes. The earliest copyright laws, even before the Statute of Anne, were more about controlling the flow of information by licensing only certain printers to produce works. The Statue of Anne was merely the first time copyright was used with the intent of increasing the amount of culture and rewarding authors, not as a tool to protect the nobility.You're absolutely right that their notion of "copyright" would be very different from our modern one. Absolutely. However, the issues at place are still very much the same. Who has the right to copy a work? Who has the authority to grant or deny that power? etc. When I think of copyright in the historical sense, I don't just see it as it is currently applied. I don't believe that Finnian believed he owned that particular book of Psalms, or that his work should be rewarded. Rather, I look at the broader picture, but rather, restrictions and rules placed on a certain work, whether for the benefit of a king, a Monk or the original author.So yes, you are right, I just may take a broader view on what copyright is and I find it fascinating that cultures were wrestling with the ethics of copying certain works, even in the 6th century. Thank you very much for your comment and I hope this clears things up!

  3. I daresay I find this rather misleading.There could be a number of reasons why St. Finnian denied Columbia his copy of the psalter, not the least of which would be a belief in the illegitimacy of the aforementioned work. If, in religious circles, something is not to be accepted as canon (or not YET canon), then the copying of said work would most likely be banned for fear of spreading potentially problematic passages among the faith.Ergo, while your story is quite wonderful and engaging, it nevertheless is wrong in its interpretation.There was no "right to copy" in dispute here – NO ONE was assumed to have had that right. Since no one was presumed to 'own' the rights to the work, no one was in position to deny that right. This was a matter of religious preservation, not the derivative rights of a book. To peg it as such is dishonest at worst and misleading at best.

  4. While I understand your position, It is important to remember a few additional things. First, in none of the texts I've read about this dispute was there any mention that the Psalter involved contained any problematic passages. In fact, quite the contrary appears to be true, that it was a newer and better Psalter. Finnian had apparently adopted it for use in his monastery but, apparently forbade its copying.The second issue is that, even if there were problematic passages, the first copyright laws, had nothing to do with authorship or ownership. It was about preventing the printing of printings works that would be problematic to the crown. The Statute of Anne was the first copyright law to consider authorship and ownership, but the issues of copying and the legitimacy of who can copy were going on well before that.If you step outside the notion of copyright law simply being about ownership of a work and being about determining who can copy a work, for any reason, regardless of ownership, you see that this dispute was a forefather to many of the ones that would, in turn, become forefathers to many modern copyright laws. This dispute is an ancestor of our modern copyright system, a distant one at that. In many ways it is different but the core issues of copying, the right to copy and access to information are still there. Granted, many of our modern ideals are not, but if you take a broader look at copyright in history, it is easier to see the connection.