The Earliest European Debate on Intellectual Property and the War It Caused

Column by Lawrence M. Ludlow.

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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:

Once upon a time [in Ireland] Colum Cille [Saint Columba] visited [Saint] Finnian of Druim Finn [his former teacher at Moville]. He asked the latter for the loan of a book [that Finnian had brought back from Rome], which he obtained. And the office and the mass being over, he used to remain after the rest of the [monastic] community in the church of that place, engaged in transcribing that book unknown to Finnian. At night time, while engaged at that transcription, the fingers of his right hand were as candles, which shone like five very bright lamps, whose light and brightness filled the entire church.

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!

O’Donnell’s Life of Saint Columba is available online in translation; the story is also available in the Broadview Book of Medieval Anecdotes, compiled by Richard Kay (1988).

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Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture
Columns on STR: 37

Lawrence Ludlow is a freelance writer living in San Diego.  



That was an excellent assessment Larry. It does bring to mind another question however. I'm wondering if this story isn't evidence of the failing of private arbitration. It's true that they went to a king (head of a government) to make the determination but they did agree to allow his arbitration. In fact it was Saint Columba, according to this, who chose the arbiter. When his arbiter chose not to side with him, he still resorted to violence. The fact that the king could not thwart Saint Columba's refusal to comply seems to be more evidence, in my opinion, that this government was not a strong controller of the people of such a kind that we perceive of governments today. I'm interested to hear what you make of that.


I'm also curious to hear whether you think the Irish king made the correct judgement.

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

See below.

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Hello, Psychoticnut: I'm glad you liked this piece, and I think that your assessment of the Irish King as more of an arbitrator than a dictator is correct. I am not, however, an expert on Irish kingship, although I am aware that Irish society in general was more anarchic then we realize. The situation with the king here reminds me of the Old Testament story regarding the replacement of judges by kings--a big mistake! The reference to that story is in chapter 8 of 1 Samuel (1 Kings, chapter 8 in the Catholic scriptures). I believe that even Stephan Kinsella would agree with this argument as presented by the king as it addresses only the understood use of an object between two people. Usually a request to copy a book took place in an overt manner. In many cases during the Middle Ages, a book was lent out for copying, and in return another book was lent back to the original lender so that they could make a copy as well. Sometimes the copier would also provide the lender with a new copy as well as returning the original. In the case of a particularly rare book, the lender could demand a higher "price" of this type. This was a very reciprocal form of trade. In the case of this tale, St Columba clearly violated the well-understood norm that St. Finnian was insisting upon, and it corresponds to much of what Kinsella wrote. It is important not to confuse this kind of just restriction regarding the use of a physical object with current copyright restrictions that bind parties who have no contract. Kinsella spells this out very well in his papers. I sent a link to him, so he will probably say something on his site. I will mention it when it comes up.


I'm well aware of the story in 1 Samuel 8. I wasn't aware that it is in 1 kings 8 in the Catholic scriptures. I find that interesting but that's for another discussion. I do understand why this might remind you of that story though. It's an interesting correlation. I'm also well aware of Stephen Kinsella's work. Against Intellectual Property was the first thing I ever read from that point of view and I agree with your assessment completely. What do you think there is to learn if anything from the subsequent war that cost the lives of 3,000 people over a disagreement about a book? Do you think that was a result of a violent culture? If so do you think that violent culture was due to their religious views? Do you think that it was the result of man being a more primitive beast 1500 years ago? If so do you think we have evolved significantly from that point? Do you think there is a significant amount of evolving that must occur before a completely free society can be realized?

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

These are all good questions, but I'm not sure I can provide any definitive answers. On one hand I'm not even sure if that battle took place in the way it is described. In addition, the little bit that I have read about it indicates that there was another possible cause based on conflicts with other origins. I noticed in an article in my 11th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica that the British author of the article made some unkind remarks about the Irish (surprise!). So I really cannot answer this question with any certainty. As to the bigger question (failure of arbitration) that you asked, this may certainly be a case of one failure, but not of the concept itself. A lawyer friend of mine once told me that 90% of all legal disputes are settled through arbitration, so I would have to say that it is a much more popular method than the monopoly courts of government--as it should be. I am wondering a little bit, too, about the theories of Lloyd Demause (psychohistory) on child rearing practices during different historical periods and the effect that such practices have had on how violent people were upon reaching maturity. You should know that many historians question the concept of psychohistory as a theory (in part because of the tendency to overgeneralize based on limited records), but on the other hand, studies in family history do reveal patterns of childrearing that one can acknoledge as having an effect on children when they become adults.
As to any evolution of mankind, now that various laser weapons and sonic guns and death by remotely-operated drones (whose software resembles commercial video games and oftentimes is developed with this resemblance in mind) have been in the ascendant, the psychological distance between predator and prey have enabled many people to dis-associate their actions from any kind of ethical self-awareness or need to experience the impact of their actions to such an extent that even if Lloyd Demause is correct in his thesis (for example, in his work "Evolution of Childrearing") I wonder if technology has made up for any positive evolution in human behavior and has thus rendered man more detached, more deadly, and less conscious of the nature of his actions than ever before--much as a narcotized person does not have to face the full meaning of his actions while under the influence. Frankly--and this may be a sign of aging more than anything else--I suspect that while the ethical standards of the average person today may possibly encompass greater self-awareness than in the past (for an average person), I certainly would have to say that the ethical standards of many intellectuals, and even the ability to reason using logic, are possibly lower today than they were in the Middle Ages. I of course grant an exception in the case of you, Psychoticnut! (Does your online name ever lead to trouble?)

Paul's picture

Kinsella's arguments do not impress me much, since they depend on the notion of rights, which I think are imaginary. Whenever you see a lot of arm-waving going on, you can be sure the subject being discussed is "rights".

Anyway, the IP dispute is handled like all others. If you initiate violence you are in the wrong. And no, copying a book is not initiating violence. But breaking a contract is actionable...

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

@Paul. I can only assume that you have not carefully read Kinsella's essay. I have read it twice and listened to it as many times, and each time, I gain more understanding of the topic. Kinsella has done us a great favor by carefully exploring the misunderstandings and explaining the distinctions between sloppy use of terms such as "self-ownership" vs. "ownership of one's body" as well as the problems of vague usages such as "owning one's labor" and "mixing one's labor" and the problems subsequently caused by them. He clearly demonstrates the importance of the clarifying the concept of homesteading by refining it as making a first, unambiguous claim (taking possession). Just as important, he shows how the fallacious concept of "intellectual property" actually destroys and is used to collectivize physical property and destroy unambiguous claims--thus undermining the concept of ownership. He also correctly identifies the roots of IP in both monopoly and censorship.
Consequently, I cannot fathom how someone can so quickly dismiss such a clarifying and pathbreaking piece of writing as Kinsella's. Fortunately, the caliber of his work and the clarity and precision that he brings to the discussion and the terminology itself will outlive mere sneers. Kinsells's essay, "Against Intellectual Property," has not only gathered the varieties of perception about the concept in one coherent work, but he has elucidated the confusion surrounding each false understanding of it--chipping away what is useless, confusing, and contradictory. Rarely have I read an essay that does as much to de-mystify the sloppy usage that generally surrounds these terms--even among libertarians. And after leveling the ground, he builds a much cleaner, clearer thesis about the purpose, origins of, and value of the concept of property and pseudo-property. To dismiss the useful concept of rights--which Kinsella would probably agree exsits solely as a useful tool to help us minimize conflict and has no subsisting reality--is at a minimum incredibly hasty. Even if we can all agree that the concept of "rights" (as in the case of any concept) are an invention of our minds, they still retain great value because they refer--as Stephan Molyneux would say--to "universally preferable behaviors" or eminently useful value systems. Paul, I think you owe readers an apology for dismissing Kinsella's genuine contribution to this formerly muddy discipline of libertarian theory. Your claim was unsupported. And I hope a new reader, encountering your statement, will quickly dismiss it for what it is and go on to learn from Kinsella. I suspect envy is at the root of your comment--bar one, the deadliest of the seven deadly sins of Dante in his Purgatorio.