An Irishman's Diary

AS copyright lawyers will know, today marks an important anniversary in their trade

AS copyright lawyers will know, today marks an important anniversary in their trade. The more grateful among them may even raise a toast to Britain’s Queen Anne, who exactly 300 years ago – April 10th, 1710 – gave her assent to “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning”. Under which propagandistic title, book authors acquired statutory protection from plagiarism and piracy for up to 28 years.

Not that copyright was a new thing, even then. But before 1710, it had been the preserve of English common law and at one time, on this island, of the old Brehon Laws. In fact, all of 1,150 years earlier, Ireland had been the scene of a landmark legal case in intellectual property protection that established a principle still widely held today.

It was precipitated by that 6th-century champion of free-content provision, St Colmcille. A prolific scribe, Colmcille led the Google book digitisation project of his day, at Durrow, where he and his team of monks copied all the sacred texts they could get their hands on, for wider dissemination.

And when his former mentor, Finnian of Moville, returned from Rome with a prized volume of the “Vulgate” – St Jerome’s translation of the Bible – Columba was naturally anxious to make copies of that too.


Jealous of the manuscript, however, Finnian would not give the access needed. So Colmcille transcribed the book surreptitiously, until the older man rumbled him and demanded the copy. Their dispute was subsequently referred to the supreme court – Tara – and the High King himself: Diarmaid. Who, finding in Finnian’s favour, delivered a famous ruling, usually summed up in the line: “To every cow its calf, to every book its copy.” The judgment was even more elegant when you consider that contemporary manuscripts were written on vellum. So the cow-calf analogy could hardly have been more apt. Unfortunately, Colmcille did not appreciate its beauty and the dispute escalated into the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne, in AD 561, when 3,000 men died.

There was more involved than copyright, of course. The chain of events leading to war included a typically Irish mixture of politics, death, and hurling. Colmcille was backed by Diarmaid’s northern rivals, the O’Neills, and he also angered the king by giving refuge to a fugitive who, during a dispute at a hurling match, had killed a son of a royal steward (the miscreant was later caught and executed – no long-drawn-out GAA disciplinary procedures back then).

Even so, the conflict at Cúl Dreihmne became known as the “Battle of the Books”. And the dispute had other far-reaching effects. It was in expiation of his guilt that Colmcille went into exile, to convert the heathens of England and Scotland.

The irony of Ireland’s pioneering role in copyright law is that, both before and after 1710, this island was the bane of English publishers. Not until the Act of Union was British copyright law enforceable across the Irish Sea. And there had long been such a vibrant trade here in the reproduction of English works that some London publishers feared sending even a single copy of a book to Ireland lest it be reprinted.

Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of Roman Empire– a 1776 bestseller – paid the Irish plagiarists a back-handed compliment when describing his surprise at that book's success: "The first impression was exhausted in a few days; a second and third edition were scarcely adequate to the demand; and the bookseller's property was twice invaded by the pirates of Dublin. My book was on every table . . ." But the law caught up with Ireland eventually, and by the mid-1800s it was illegal downloaders in the US who were annoying English writers such as Dickens.

Meanwhile, a campaign was under way to expand the protection of “the bookseller’s property”. In a famous speech to the House of Commons in 1841, opposing the extension of copyright to 60 years after an author’s death, Thomas Macaulay questioned the notion that this was necessary to encourage learning or creativity. So doing, he speculated as to who might have inherited the copyright of Samuel Johnson, then 56 years dead.

“I guess . . . it would have been some bookseller, who was the assign of another bookseller, who was the grandson of a third bookseller, who had bought the copyright from . . . the doctor’s servant and residuary legatee, in 1785 or 1786. Now, would the knowledge that this copyright would exist in 1841 have been a source of gratification to Johnson? Would it have stimulated his exertions? Would it have once drawn him out of his bed before noon? . . . I firmly believe not.”

The shift from the copyright of individual creators to that of corporations, already afoot then, continues today. And ironically, a late convert to copyright law – the US – now leads the global fight for protection of intellectual property, thanks mainly to its powerful entertainment industry. Under a 1998 law, copyright owners there can enjoy 95 years of exclusivity, a measure they would quite like to export to Europe.

Calves are rarely mentioned in copyright hearings now. But the American law does carry a faint echo of that ancient ruling at Tara, in that it too evokes a four-legged animal. The analogy lacks a bit in elegance. Even so, noting the Disney Corporation’s dominant role in lobbying for the changes, critics like to refer to the 1998 measure as “The Mickey Mouse Act.”