Intellectual Property and the first ruling of copyright law…

Hosted by the excellent Irish Writers Centre, Dublin, I attended an interesting talk recently on an aspect of the history of copyright law, which casts an intriguing light on when and where copyright originated from.

And so it goes, that one thousand years before Queen Anne passed a copyright law in 1707, a 6th century Irish saint, Colmcille, copied a book of psalms from a psalter written by Saint Finian. Intending to keep the copy, Colmcille was of the opinion that the words of God belonged to everyone and therefore, could not be traded.

Finian, believing the work to be his intellectual property,  was not impressed and a dispute between the two men ensued, resulting in Colmcille taking his case to the then High King of Tara, Diarmuid.

The king decreed the first ruling on copyright law with the following judgement:

“To every cow, its little cow, that is its calf, and to every book its little book (copy). Because of that,  Colmcille, the book you copied is Finian’s”.

The ruling resulted in Colmcille going to battle with King Diarmuid at Cooldruman, Sligo on the slopes of Benbulbin. Popularly known as The Battle of the Books, Colmcille triumphed, but decided not to assume the role of High-King as he was entitled to do.

Instead, he left Ireland as an exile to do penance for the numbers of men killed in the battle and in 563, he settled in Iona, off the coast of Scotland.

T’is Interesting!

The talk was presented by novelist and solicitor, Ronan Sheehan. In the 1970’s, Ronan was co-founder of the Irish Writers Co-op with such luminaries as Neil Jordan, Peter Sheridan and Dermot Healy. You can read his paper on Colmcille and the Irish Tradition here:


The image reproduced here is not the copyright of the author.