Brehon Laws and the Establishment of Copyrights

Copyright law actually began with the Brehon Laws of Ancient Ireland over 1000 years before it appeared in English legislation. It started and ended in a bitter and brutal dispute over royalties.

The dispute arose in 563 AD between two of the top contributors in the monastic schools of Ireland: Saint Colmcille and Saint Finian, each claiming to be the original author of a manuscript called ‘St Jerome’s Psalter‘.

Born in Gartan, Co Donegal, St. Colmcille was a descendant of the Uí Néill (O’Neill) Clan. He was the son of Princess Eithne and his Grandfather has the honour of being the man who originally brought the slave boy who would later be known as Saint Patrick and gave him his name. Founding several monastic settlements during his lifetime, Colmcille left a lasting mark on the island of Ireland. His first foundation was in Derry and his last was on Iona, Scotland.

A contemporary of Colmcille, Saint Finian was born in Co Carlow to an Irish noble family. Known as ‘The Master of The Saints of Ireland’ he was in fact a tutor of Colmcille’s and many other famous Saints of the time. He was very well-educated himself and spent some of his years learning in Wales.

The dispute was brought to the High King of Ireland whose edict was: ‘To every cow its calf and to every book its copy’. In consequence, in 561AD, the High King and Colmcille engaged in battle on the slopes of Benbulben. Aided by an angel, Colmcille won. Thousands of men were slain and the King was forced to concede the copy of the psalter to Colmcille.

Stricken by remorse after the Battle of the Books, Colmcille confessed and was banished to Iona, Scotland, in 563AD. His penance was to convert more people to Christ than had fallen at Culdreimhne.

Copyright law has been around for more than a millennium and was first established in Ireland.

The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook

Photo: The High Cross of Saint Colmcille under Benbulben, founded in 575AD

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