The earliest known court case about copyright in British history?

St Columba is the leading player in this little legal legend.

At the convention of Druim Cett in 575, St. Columcille (also called St. Columba or Colum Cille or Colmcille) interceded to stop the banishment of the poets. The title “poet” in this case may refer to those who maintained the oral histories of the druids. .. More of the pre-christian oral histories may have been preserved in Ireland than in other parts of Europe. As some of the druids became Christian leaders, they decided that it was permitted to write down the oral history where before it had been forbidden. In “The Course of Irish History” by T. W. Moody and F. X. Martin, at the end of chapter 3, it is stated that this resulted in a preservation of literacy and learning by other than the Christian Clergy that was unique to Ireland during the dark ages.

Druids that converted were acceptable, others were not. Columcille wasn’t above getting involved in territorial disputes, as mentioned in the “Life of Columba”, by Manus O’Donnell. In a chapter called “Of the labors of Columcille in Iona”:

202 And the history telleth no more of him until he came to the isle called Iona of Columcille 204 On the eve of Pentecost they cast anchor on that island and there were druids there and they came in the guise of bishops toward Columcille And they said to him that it was not right for him to come on that island and that themselves had been there afore him sowing the Faith and piety and it had no need of other holy men to bless it It is not true what ye say saith Columcille for ye be not bishops in truth but druids of Hell that are against the Faith. Leave this island Not to you hath God granted it And at the word of Columcille the druids left the island.

Iona was originally called Isla nan Druideach, the Isle of the Druids. Those that stuck to the Old Ways got the sharp edge of Columcille's tongue.

That wouldn’t be the last time Columcille was in dispute, or in Iona. Soon he was involved in bigger and bloodier troubles, starting with a legal dispute over the copyright of a book with Abbot Finnen. (This may the very first recorded copyright court case in British legal history). It was at the monastery of Druim Finn. Columcille was a guest there and had, it is said, secretly copied the book in the scriptorium while all other monks at the monastery were busy preparing for a visit by King Diarmait mac Cerbaill. The book in question is called the Cathach, an illuminated commentary on The Psalms, given to Finnen as a gift from a French monastery, which Columcille copied without Finnen’s knowledge. Legend has it that:

“Columcille was so focused on his work that he hardly heard, or simply ignored, the monastery’s evening bell which signalled that the holy brothers were to return to their cells for prayer and sleep. Late that night, a sleepless monk noticed a candle’s glow through the scriptorium window. Concerned, he went to wake the abbot.”

Quite rightly because an untended naked flame in a book full of valuable and flammable papers was asking for trouble.

– “But by the time they burst to discover what their guest was doing, Columcille was just finishing the book’s final lines. Setting down his quill, he gathered up the pages of his manuscript, bid his outraged host a terse good night, and returned to his cell to sleep.

To cut a long story short, Columcille was summoned to an audience with the King. Finnen made the case that as Columcille had copied without permission, “The son of the book belongs to me”. Columcille repost was that we should multiply and scatter such books that contained this knowledge. But his abstract argument that ideas cannot be owned did not sway the King as strongly as the more tangible precedent of parental and hereditary rights. King Diarmait issued the ruling:

“To every cow its calf, to every book its child-book. The child-book belongs to Finnen”.

That ought to have been the end of the matter. But Columcille refused to accept the decision; he rallied an army and started a battle in which 3,000 people are reported to have died. One might wonder - how Columcille could legally have started a war with the sovereign King of Ireland? But Diarmait mac Cerbaill was merely the King of a single country, and Columcille had the full might of the now-Christian Roman Empire at his command. Important business matters were at stake. Independent countries with independent opinions could clearly not be tolerated. All for the greater good of the greater European Union?

Columcille won the battle, reclaimed the book, but went into exile in Iona. One might also wonder how Columcille got to be a saint after that. Maybe establishing a monopoly on people's faith is a ruthless business. Likewise the business of disposing of any competition by any means deemed necessary. Not the peace and love we learnt at Sunday School.

Next : Mind The Gap! Or, the Great Myth of the Dark Ages

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