The Curious Case of two monks and a Psalter

It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but it's allegedly the first recorded case of copyright infringement, one which ended poorly with a full scale battle, 3,000 deaths and an honorably mentioned cow.

In 560AD Saint Finnian was overseeing Movilla Abbey, the monastery he founded in Ireland 20 years earlier. In this time when books were rare, his ownership of a copy of St Jeromes Vulgate gave the monastery some prestige. Finnian also owned a Psalter (a book of psalms from the bible and other devotional material).

A former student, Saint Colomba, who was presently a guest at the Abbey, made a secret copy of the book during his visit. You can imagine it took some time, since it would have had to have been entirely copied by hand. His intention was to take the book with him when he left.

Unfortunately, Finnian discovered what he was doing, when Colomba had almost finished the copying. Finnian demanded Colomba hand over the pirated copy, but Colomba refused and claimed ownership of the book, on the grounds that he had done all the copying. Incensed, Finnian took the matter to High King Diarmait, who ruled in favor of Finnian; "To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy."

Columba must have really wanted the book, and strongly disagreed with King Diarmait's ruling against him. He reportedly instigated a successful rebellion of the Uí Néill clan against the King, resulting in the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne (Battle of the Book) which was claimed to have caused around 3,000 casualties.

We try to steer away from bloodshed when it comes to copyright infringement today, but we can thank High King Diarmait for the principle which still stands, and bears repeating - "To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy."

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Written by Karen Workman, Kaiwhakahaere Whakapa | Creative Rights Educator

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