Copyright and wrong – Frank McNally on Ireland’s chequered history of copyright law

The Roscommon-born writer and lawyer Arthur Murphy (1727–1805) is little remembered today, but he was a leading London barrister of his time and a successful comic dramatist. He was also for a while a newspaper columnist.  And as with most unfortunates in that profession, he found himself oppressed on occasion by the tyranny of deadlines.

Once, while staying with friends in the country, he lamented having to go to town “to publish his sheet for the day”. His hosts suggested he write it there instead and said they would send a man on horseback to bring it to the printers. Murphy agreed, but then decided that even the chore of composing the piece would deprive him of congenial company for too long.

So he began leafing through a French magazine he had to hand, being fluent in that language, and found a witty essay there that he thought might pass for his.

He translated this quickly, gave it to the horseman, then went back to enjoying his social life. Only when returning to London two days later did he realise that the French magazine had ripped off a piece written by the famous Samuel Johnson, which Murphy had now translated back into English as his own, in Johnson's own back yard.


There was nothing for it but to hasten to the great man’s lodgings as fast as he could and ask forgiveness. Which he did, successfully. The story ended well, with Johnson and he forming a friendship that lasted decades.

The other funny thing about the episode is that, as a lawyer, Murphy’s most notable cases included one concerning, of all things, copyright. In fact, I only discovered the Johnson story (in the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes) while reading up on copyright, because this Sunday marks World Intellectual Property Day, an annual event intended to promote the rights of authors.

Murphy, it turns out, was one of the protagonists in a landmark ruling of 1774, by which the British House of Lords rejected the idea that book publishers could own the rights to a work in perpetuity. He had argued against this, in fairness. As a result of the case, book owners’ rights remained limited to a maximum 28 years; a privilege itself relatively new then, having been granted only by an Act of 1709.

Ireland has a chequered relationship with copyright history. For almost a century after it was introduced in England, that law did not apply this side of the Irish Sea. Thus, throughout the 1700s, Dublin was a haven for book piracy, with titles freely republished here and then often finding their way back into the English market.

One of bestselling history books of the period, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was among those flagrantly exploited.

Reflecting on its extraordinary success, Gibbon marvelled: “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.”

That all ended with the Act of Union. From then on, the centre of literary piracy moved across the Atlantic, to the annoyance of such English authors as Charles Dickens.   When Dickens toured the US in 1840, it was partly to promote an international copyright law. But even his accounts of the trip were pirated by American publishers.

Getting back to Ireland, on the plus side, we also arguably gave the world one of its earliest and greatest judgements in copyright law. That was in the case of Colmcille v Saint Finnian (circa 560AD), which began when the former made a copy of a rare religious work – St Jerome’s translation of the Bible – which Finnian had brought back from Rome.

The work of Colmcille’s Durrow scriptorium might now be considered an example of “Free Culture”, which is the bane of newspapers and record companies. Traditionally, however, he and his fellow copyists have been regarded as literature-preserving heroes, their role summed up in the title of Thomas Cahill’s 1997 book How the Irish Saved Civilisation.

But St Finnian took exception and appealed to the High King at Tara, who agreed that the reproduction should be handed over.

Hence the famous judgment: “To every cow her calf, to every book her copy”, an idea all the more elegant because books then were made from vellum.

Alas, this story did not turn out so amicably as the other one. By some accounts, it culminated with the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne (also circa 560), where the king’s ruling was overturned and he and 3,000 men died.