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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