The Ancient Copyright Dispute That Cost 3,000 Lives

“Copyright is monopoly, and produces all the effects which the general voice of mankind attributes to monopoly.” —Thomas Babington Macaulay

In A Nutshell

Around A.D. 560, the earliest recorded copyright dispute in history erupted in Ireland. At stake was the ownership of a copy of the Cathach, which today is the oldest surviving manuscript written in Ireland, attributed to St. Columba. Columba refused to acknowledge the ruling of King Diarmait MacCerbhaill that prohibited him from keeping his copy. He instigated an uprising against Diarmait, and the subsequent battle killed at least 3,000 of the king’s troops.

The Whole Bushel

St. Columba is the most prominent saint in early Christian Ireland. He was born in A.D. 521 in Donegal of royal descent from the clan O’Donnell. Columba spent most of his life in monastic schools. In Movilla Abbey, he came under the tutelage of St. Finnian. A deeply learned man, Columba was said to have written 300 books, and spent every hour of his day studying and transcribing documents.

One day, St. Finnian lent a psalter, or a book of psalms, to Columba. Tradition says that Columba, working “at night in haste by a miraculous light” produced a copy of the book for himself. When Finnian found out, he protested Columba’s right to keep the copy. He demanded both the original and the copy be returned to him, arguing he was the rightful owner of both. In what would be the earliest recorded case on copyright in history, Finnian took the dispute to King Diarmait MacCerbhaill for arbitration. The king decided in favor of Finnian, declaring, “To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy.”

Columba could not abide by the king’s decision and in the most extreme reaction by a losing plaintiff, instigated a rebellion by the clan Neill, who had other political grievances against Diarmait. In the resulting Battle of Cul Dreimhne in 561, about 3,000 of Diarmait’s army was slain. Columba supported the Neills with his prayers, while on the opposite side, Finnian did the same for King Diarmait and his forces. Who exactly won the battle is not clear, but since it was Columba who got punished, it is safe to conclude that the king was victorious.

Columba was hauled before a synod of clerics and scholars and threatened with excommunication for the deaths he caused. St. Brendan of Birr ably defended him and succeeded in commuting the sentence to exile. Legend says that Columba was conscience-stricken and decided on a severe penance: to leave his native Ireland and become a missionary to win as many souls for Christ as died in the battle.

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With 12 companions, Columba took to the sea and settled in the Scottish island of Iona in 563. Here he established a monastery of which he became abbot. Iona became the center of his evangelizing activity. In keeping with his penance, Columba worked tirelessly preaching the Gospel, crisscrossing Scotland and converting the northern Picts. One legend that grew out of his adventures was his encounter with a monster at Loch Ness. Columba reportedly made the sign of the cross as the creature approached, upon which Nessie slunk back and disappeared.

Columba returned only one more time to his native land. He died on June 9, 597 in his beloved Iona. And the book that caused so much tragedy? It came to be known as the Cathach, or “battle book”. The O’Donnells claimed ownership of the Cathach, which they carried around on the battlefield like a sort of talisman to ensure their victory.

The Church eventually forgave Columba’s moment of unsaintly anger. As one archibishop exclaimed, “O felix culpa . . . which produced so much good for both Erin [Ireland] and Alba [Scotland]!”

Show Me The Proof

Plagiarism Today: Copyright in 561 AD
History of Information: The Earliest Surviving Manuscript Written in Ireland, the Oldest Surviving Irish Manuscript of the Psalter, and the Earliest Recorded Historical Case-Law on the Right to Copy
Out of the Mist, by Thomas J. Faulkenbury
Pocket Guide to Sainthood: The Field Manual for the Super-Virtuous Life, byC Jason Boyett
Columcille and the Druids

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