The story of St. Columba: A modern copyright battle in sixth century Ireland |

The story of St. Columba: A modern copyright battle in sixth century Ireland

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I've long been under the impression that copyright began with the Statute of Anne in 1710, as is generally taught. But have you ever heard of Saint Columba (521-597)? If not, the story is going to sound pretty familiar compared to modern copyright battles. But fortunately, mp3 downloads rarely result in 3,000 deaths.

St. Columba (sometimes Columbkill, Columcille, Calum Cille, or other variations) was an Irish Gaelic missionary and one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. Those twelve were saints who studied under St. Finian at Clonary Abbey.

Columba was known for constant study and prayer--really, really constant. He is said to have written 300 books, by hand of course, continuing to transcribe up to the night before he died.

Finian and Columba got into a disagreement over a psalter. (According to one longer version of the story, it was the Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Bible and the first copy of it to reach Ireland, which would make it a pretty appealing piece of literature.) Columba borrowed the manuscript from Finian--possibly without permission--and secretly copied it with the intention of keeping it for his own use. But Finian said no, that this was theft--illegal copying! He demanded that Columba hand over the copy he had made.

Finian took the matter to King Diarmait mac Cerbhiall, the High King of Ireland, for arbitration. Believing he had done nothing wrong in his attempt to spread the word of the church, Columba agreed. (It didn't hurt his expectations that Diarmait was a relative.)

Finian's argument was simple: My book. You can't copy it. He felt that if anyone was going to copy it that it should be done through certain procedures and certainly not in secret under his own roof.

Columba's response was not all that different from those in favor of less restriction in digital duplication--that the book had not suffered by his copying. "It is not right," he said, "that the divine words in that book should perish, or that I or any other should be hindered from writing them or reading them or spreading them among the tribes." In his closing address, he told the court that those who owned the knowledge through books were obligated to spread the knowledge by copying and sharing them. He felt that to not share knowledge was a far greater offense than to copy a book that lost nothing by being copied.

But the king ruled in Finian's favor, famously saying, "To every cow belongs its calf; to every book its copy." In other words, every copy of a book belonged to the owner of the original book.

Of course, the story didn't end there. After more arguing and Columba's next offense (harboring a fugitive from Diarmait), the result was the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne, the death of 3,000 people, and Columba's exile.

Ray Corrigan wrote a very interesting version of the story (PDF) in a paper for Gikii in 2007 if you'd like to read more.


About the author

Ruth Suehle - Ruth Suehle is the community leadership manager for Red Hat's Open Source and Standards team. She's co-author of Raspberry Pi Hacks (O'Reilly, December 2013) and a senior editor at GeekMom, a site for those who find their joy in both geekery and...