The Earliest European Debate on Intellectual Property and the War It Caused
Column by Lawrence M. Ludlow.
Exclusive to STR
Some years ago, I changed my thinking about intellectual property (IP) upon reading Stephan Kinsella’s clear exposition of the debate in his work, Against Intellectual Property. In particular, I was fascinated by his definition and discussion of how and when property rights come into play—not only in terms of the abstract concepts that IP comprises, but also with the physical printed matter itself. More recently, from a libertarian perspective, I explored some of the implications of the invention of printing with moveable type in 1454 - 1455 by Johann Gutenberg. I encourage libertarians and voluntaryists to familiarize themselves with the most important anarcho-capitalist invention of the last millennium in my essay Johann Gutenberg: Genuine Inventor and Benefactor of Mankind. You may be surprised by what you have been told and not told about the impact of this invention on the scientific revolution and, indeed, on freedom itself—a concept that has been taken a step further by the creation and evolution of the Internet, which enables everyone to have a printing press, worldwide distribution network, and instant access to the largest “library” in history. I have continued to conduct research into early printed books, or incunabula, at Chicago’s Newberry Library, and I am currently compiling some interesting notes on how IP was viewed in the first decades following Gutenberg’s printing press.
During my readings, however, I came across this wonderful story taken from the Life of Saint Columba, which was written in 1532 by Manus O’Donnell and translated from the Latin text by Andrew O’Kelleher in 1909. It relates an episode from the life of Saint Columba that takes place in Ireland in 561 A.D. It appears to be one of the earliest mentions—if not the earliest—of an IP dispute in Western European history. Furthermore, it encompasses two key arguments addressed by Kinsella.
On one hand, I think you’ll agree that Saint Columba’s wonderful economic analysis of his unauthorized copying of a Latin Psalter (Saint Jerome’s Vulgate translation) neatly captures Kinsella’s insight that no economic value is lost in the process of copying.
On the other hand, it also accurately conveys the tension caused by Saint Finnian’s equally valid perception that Saint Columba, in making an unauthorized copy of a book loaned to him for the purpose of reading, was violating a shared “tacit” understanding (contract) by making the copy.
Just as remarkable is that this dispute between Saint Columba and Saint Finnian of Moville, who loaned the Psalter to Columba, was one of the trigger events leading to the battle of Cooldrevny (Cuildreinhne) in 561. It is said that 3,000 men perished in that battle.
As you read the following text, it may help to keep in mind that Columba is simply the Latin word for dove, and the Irish rendering of Saint Columba’s name is Colum Cille—two words that mean dove and church (or cell) respectively:
On the last night, when Collum Cille was completing the transcription of that book, Finnian sent for it. When the messenger arrived at the door of the church wherein was Colum Cille, he was astonished at the great light he saw within, and great fear seized him. Timorously he glanced through a hole which was in the door at the entry of the church, and when he beheld Colum Cille as we have described him, he dared not address him or demand the book of him. It was revealed to Colum Cille, however, that the youth was thus watching him, whereat he became very angry, and, addressing a pet crane of his, said: “If God permits it, you have my permission to pluck out that youth’s eyes, who came to observe me without my knowledge.” With that, that crane immediately went and drove its beak through the hole of the door towards the youth’s eye, plucked it out, and left it resting on his cheek. The youth then returned to Finnian, and related to him the whole of his adventure. Thereupon Finnian was displeased, and he blessed and healed the youth’s eye, and restored it to its place, so that it was as well as ever, without being injured or affected in any way.
When Finnian discovered that his book had been copied without his permission, he went to reprove Colum Cille, and said he had acted wrongly in transcribing his book without permission. “I shall appeal to the king of Ireland, namely Diarmaid MacCerbuill [544-565], for judgment,” says Colum Cille.
“I shall agree to that,” says Finnian. They then proceeded together to Tara of the Kings, where Diarmaid (or Dermott) MacCerbuill resided. Finnian pleaded his case first to the king as follows: “Colum Cille transcribed my book without my knowledge,” says he, “and I maintain that the transcript belongs to me.”
“I hold,” says Colum Cille, “that Finnian’s book has not decreased in value because of the transcript I have made from it, and that it is not right to extinguish the divine things it contained [psalms], or to prevent me or anybody else from copying it, or reading it, or from circulating it throughout the provinces. I further maintain that if I benefited by its transcription, which I desired to be for the general good, provided no injury accrues to Finnian or his book thereby, it was quite permissible for me to copy it.”
Then Diarmaid declared the famous judgment, which was: “to every cow her offspring”—that is, her calf—“and to every book its transcript (le gach lebhur a leadbràn). And therefore,” says Diarmaid, “the transcript you have made, O Colum Cille, belongs to Finnian.” “It is a wrong judgment,” says Colum Cille, “and you shall be punished for it.” [Therefore he fomented a rebellion against the high king and (even though Colum Cille’s rebellion succeeded) subsequently went into exile in Scotland, where he built a monastery at Iona as a missionary center for the conversion of the Scots.]
~ Manus O’Donnell, Life of Saint Columba (1532),translated by Andrew O’Kelleher (1909).
Just to explain the ending, Columba refused to hand over the copy, and Diarmaid forced the issue militarily. Columba's family and clan defeated Dermott at the battle of Cooldrevny (Cuildreinhne) in 561. Plagued by guilt because 3,000 men died in that battle, Columba’s conscience led him to confess to Saint Molaise, who imposed a penance on Columba, telling him to leave Ireland and, through preaching, gain as many souls for Christ as were lost at Cooldrevny and never return to Ireland. Consequently, he sailed to the island of Iona, where he founded the famous monastery there in 563. Tradition holds that the Cathach of Saint Columba is the book that Columba copied. It is held at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. Hmm, it appears that God was convinced by Columba!