the first intellectual property pirate

IN the year of our Lord 565, when Justin, the younger, the successor of Justinian, had the government of the Roman empire, there came into Britain a famous priest and abbot, a monk by habit and life, whose name was Columba, to preach the word of God to the provinces of the northern Picts, who are separated from the southern parts by steep and rugged mountains… (Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English History (731 AD))

In the first few centuries after the explosive growth of the Christian religion under Constantine, most evangelized regions of the world were without Scripture of any kind. In Ireland, among newly evangelized Picts this problem was of such extent that a certain monk of by the name of Columba set out to copy and distribute scripture. His attempts were not without their own troubles, mainly the government and a copyright decree (it seems there was no standing concept of copyright before this). The first recorded copyright dispute, not only was an attempt to suppress the Bible, but also led to a revolution against the copyright-enforcing, Pagan-friendly King. Eventually this led to the Christianizing of Ireland by the Intellectual Property pirate, Columba.

The accounts in existence of the life of Columba are not necessarily the most reliable. Three main sources attest to the life of this man: Vita Columbae by Adomnan (672), an anonymous work dated around 1150, and Manus O’Donnell’s Betha Colaim Chille (1532). Adomnan, who likely knew people who knew Columba, fills his account with strange and fictional miracles. The work done in 1532 collects many various sources and traditions, including these fictitious miracles (but with disclaimer). Although the miraculous can be discounted and the anachronisms ignored, the overall story is likely to be reliable. On such example is when Columba curses a man who falls dead on the spot. As reported by Manus O’Donnell:

70. Then Columcille bade farewell to Finnen and went to Master Gemman to study in like manner. On a time that he and Gemman were together, they saw a young maiden coming toward them, and an evil man of the district pursuing her for her life. And she besought protection of Columcille and Gemman against him, And so great was her fear that she hid herself under their mantles to save her from that man. And when the man came to the spot, he heeded not the sanctuary of Columcille nor of Gemman, bnt he made a spear-thrust against the maid so that she died straightway. And Columcille cursed him therefor, and besought God to kill him in short space. Then inquired Gemman of Columcille how long it should be ere God avenge on the youth the shameful deed he had done.

Columcille made answer to him and said: “In the hour that the angels of God come to meet the soul of that maiden to bear it to Paradise, to enjoy the everlasting glory, devils of Hell shall come for the soul of this evil man to bear it to the pains of Hell for ever and ever.”

And in that very moment the man died in their sight, through the curse of Columcille, even as Ananias died in the sight of Peter. So that God’s name and Columcille ‘s were magnified thereby.

Rightly, Ray Corrigan tells a different version in his “Colmcille and the Battle of the Book: Technology, Law and Access to Knowledge in 6th Century Ireland”:

So it is not surprising that this was the story that got circulated, fuelled, no doubt, by a propaganda-literate ambitious young monk. As to how the murderer actually died, there’s a fair chance it was at the hands of the furious Celtic warrior in Colmcille, the one who was never reluctant to dish out summary vengeance with the appropriate curse thrown in for good measure. It’s hard to believe that a young man who had reputedly beaten opponents to within an inch of their lives when his temper took hold, would have been able to control the sheer physical rage that would have gripped him upon witnessing such a vicious murder.

Columba not only was an IP pirate, but also a righteous vigilante!

It is also from Manus O’Donnell’s 1532 work which the copyright story is taken, but this work cites the 1150 work as the source of the copyright story. Note that we are assured by O’Donnell’s translators that he remained particularly faithful to the original sources. The story starts out with a Columba visiting a monk named Finnen:

167. Here beginneth the sending of Columcille to Alba and the causes of his exile to Alba, as his Life anon will show.

168. On a time Columcille went to stay with Finnen of Druim Finn, and he asked of him the loan of a book, and it was given him. After the hours and the mass, he was wont to tarry behind the others in the church, there transcribing the book, unknown to Finnen…

Apparently, Columba was taking too long with the book, so “on the last night that Columba was copying the end of the book” Finnen, sent a youth to check on him. The youth found out what was going on and reported back to Finnen. Finnen next confronted Columba and demanded that Columba turn over the copy. Columba refused and both decided to defer judgment to the King of Erin (Ireland), Diarmaid. The events are recorded:

Anon withal they went together to Tara of the King, to Diarmaid son of Cerball. And Finnen first told the King his story, and he said:

“Columcille hath copied my book without my knowing,” saith he, “and I contend that the son of my book is mine.”

“I contend,” saith Columcille, “that the book of Finnen is none the worse for my copying it, and it is not right that the divine words in that book should perish, or that I or any other should be hindered from writing them or reading them or spreading them among the tribes. And further I declare that it was right for me to copy it, seeing there was profit to me from doing in this wise, and seeing it was my desire to give the profit thereof to all peoples, with no harm therefrom to Finnen or his book.”

Note Columba’s argument. He is copying “divine words”, arguably either a book of Psalms or other parts of the Latin Vulgate. Traditionally this is thought to be in existence and currently housed by the Royal Irish Academy, but this manuscript dates to after Columba’s death. Assuming current dating of the manuscript in possession, this surviving manuscript (containing Psalms 30:10 to 105:13 from the Latin Vulgate) may be a portion of a later copy of Columba’s book, but not the original.

Columba’s express intent was to distribute the “divine words” to the local people, making multiple copies on top of the original copy. Columba was a true evangelist, and the selfish Finnen intends to stop him because Finnen’s jealousy over the possession of such a rare and desired manuscript. Finnen, later in the story, realizes his evil.

The book mentioned in the story probably is a partial/full Vulgate.* Columba was very insistent on getting this copied, enough to do so in secret. This apparently took several nights. When the King decided the case against Columba, Columba curses him and afterwards leads a rebellion against him, hardly actions to commence over a book of just Psalms. Columba was trying to vulgarize the Vulgate for the Picts. For this he was brought before the King:

Then it was that Diarmaid gave the famous judgment: “To every cow her young cow, that is, her calf, and to every book its transcript. And therefore to Finnen belongeth the book thou hast written, Columcille”

“It is an unjust judgment,” saith Columcille, “and punishment shall fall on thee therefor.”

Columba curses the King and walks out on him. He had not expected a judgment against him and this takes him by surprise. No mention is ever made of him complying with the judgment. In fact, evidence points to the very opposite; a manuscript still exists claiming to be his, and he almost instantly starts a rebellion. It is unlikely that tradition would start if the actual book was returned or that an angry warrior would be acquiescing an unjust judgment.

Ray Corrigan writes that King Diarmaid’s decision was an attempt to stain Columba and make a gesture to the Pagans, possibly manufactured by the King’s Druid advisor, Bec MacDe:

He [Bec MacDe] was well acquainted with the big monk and can scarcely have believed his good fortune in having this opportunity to taint the reputation of the high profile evangelist. In addition he was simultaneously able to inhibit the distribution of copies of a book which he understood to be the purist form of the Christian doctrine available in the country.

This enraged Columba and to make matters worse, the King next executes a prince under the protection of Columba. Columba cites these two reasons as for going to war with King Diarmaid:

169. And then Columcille said: “I will go to my kinsmen, the clan of Conall and of Eogan, and I will make war against thee to avenge the unjust judgment thou hast given against me touching the book, and to avenge the killing of the son of the King of Connacht that was under my safeguard, for it sufficeth me not that God take vengeance on thee hereafter, save myself take vengeance on thee in this world.”

Columba was not a faint-hearted Christian, but a Celtic warrior monk. He was not going to stand by and watch injustice prevail, especially not after the King’s suppression of the Bible. The King made a huge mistake in his first judgment and gave Columba instant allies with his second.

While Columba is leaving, the King gives an inane decree that no one can leave with Columba or join a fight against the King. The King appears to be a modern leftist who thinks that people will follow rules just because the rules exist. Presumably, the King was already feeling some fear and this was just inept lashing out.

Columba next manages to disappear without being seen by the King’s men, informs the local clans about the “evil judgment” against him, and then the clans take up arms against the King. The resulting battle is described more like a battle of prayer with Columba praying for his side and Finnen praying for the King. Columba eventually sends a messenger who prevails on Finnen to stop praying such that not all the soldiers are slain:

And Finnen knowing that this was true, and that Columcille had never spoken lie, and that God was right firmly in league with him, dropped him arms from his cross vigil, and left the place where he was.

It is interesting that the text implicitly and explicitly understands the anti-copyright decree as evil. Finnen is made to understand this, which leads to him dropping his prayers for the King, the King being routed, and Columba being able to claim the kingdom for himself (which he renounced for “God’s sake” because he offended God by previously saying that he and not God would give revenge). Columba then exiles himself, only to return again years later to continue his missionary work and fight against pagan raiders. As to the new dominance of Christianity, Ray Corrigan writes:

At the time, it was the custom every three years or so for Diarmaid to host a festival of games, ritual and lawmaking at Tara, which also celebrated the king himself. The year of the arbitration hearing turned out to be the last year it was a heavily pagan festival, as Diarmaid’s precipitated defeat at Cooldrummon proved to be the beginning of his demise and also of the waning of the influence of the druids with the high kings of Ireland.

The lasting influence of this event affected the political climate of Ireland. It represented another chink in the armor of the pagans. Ireland eventually succumbed to complete Christianization, not doubt helped along by the various and energetic missions by Columba, along with the military advances against the pagans. It can be argued that the first documented IP pirate converted an entire nation and saved literature at the same time. Columba should be held as a modern hero for these acts.

What else can be derived from this incident is a better understanding of copyright history. The first documented case of copyright dispute has only been recorded in history because it is odious. Just like Atheneaus’ Deipnosophistae documents the copyright of recipes in Syracuse (circa 500BC) in order to ridicule the practice, the case of Columba serves to show the evilness of the Pagan-friendly King. Modern copyright has no real precedence before the 1600s. Before that time, similar but entirely different concepts rose and died locally based on regional factors. In the Columba case, Finnen was not the author of the work in question and then king’s argument was internally inconsistent (Columba was doing the real manufacturing, not Finnen). In the Syracuse case, only food items were copyrighted and this was expressly to encourage gluttony. These were very specific and ad hoc rules. It was not until after the advent of union thugs (aka Trade Guilds) that copyright laws began to emerge. When people find that they can use the state to eliminate competition, they tend to become free-riders instead of constant innovators.

*Giving a generous 22 words per minute, the entire Bible would take about 137 hours to complete. This would be 14 nights of 10 hour stints. A shorthand could have been used and also potions of the Bible Columba already had, but this was also being done at night with ancient writing utensils. Probably, this was just the Old Testament, just the New Testament, or a partial of both (perhaps just the writings of Paul). Psalms, using the same methodology approximates to just over 33 hours to complete. The timeframe in the passage is not specific. It could be several days. It could be a month. We do not know for sure. These types of stories tend to skip mention of long timeframes between events.

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
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