Timetable of Legal History logoIt took a feisty Irish monk to jump-start what would become the law of copyright.

Colm Cille (also Columb-Kille and Colum MacFehlin MacFergus), was an Irish monk born in about 521. Cille was added to his first name as he spent much time, as a youth, in the local church (the Gaelic word for church is cille).

He was later made a saint and is also now known by the name of St. Columba or St. Columb of Ireland.

He lived to be 75 and studied at Clonard under his contemporary, another monk and scribe, Finian, later St. Finian (470-549).

The saga of the Copyright War started in about 560 when Cille "borrowed" an illustrated and Latin copy of the Bible from his then-teacher Finian and made a true copy. Must have taken him years - the book copied was a translation of the psalms called a vulgate.

When Colm Cille claimed ownership of his copied Vulgate, Finian disagreed; hence, the quarrel.

Brehon law had most recently been set to writing and so a great court was convened and the local king Diarmaid (also Dermott or Diarmuid), acted as Brehon.

MonkDiarmaid ruled in Finian's favour, uttering the famous analogy: le gach boin a boinín - to every cow her calf.

And thus, legal historians, believe was the first ever copyright ruling made in the world.

Colm Cille believed that judge/king Diarmuid was biased as when Colm extended sanctuary to an escaped political prisoner, Diarmuid defied the sanctuary, had the escapee apprehended and executed him and then placed Colm under house arrest.

Colm tricked his guards and escaped, retreating to his homeland at Tir-Conaill. When word arrived that King Diarmuid was pursuing him, Colm Cille's kinsmen took up his quarrel and raised an army, including troops from the dead political prisoner's family.

The army met Diarmaid at Cuildremne.

In Walsh's book, he describes the battle at which:

"... the troops of the monarch were put to flight, and three thousand of them slain, while the relatives of the saint (Columba) lost only one soldier.... (T)he monarch (was) the aggressor and against him, the saint threatened the vengeance of heaven - the only part he seems to have taken in this melancholy transaction. The battle was fought at Cul Dremhne, not far from Sligo to the north in the year 561."Vulgate

A movement grew to excommunicate Colm Cille for these deaths but instead, he offered to exile himself to the Island of Iona in Scotland, which he did, and where he came to great distinction as well.

Columb went on to greatness, becoming a pre-eminent Roman Catholic clergyman and contributing a segment of the famous Irish manuscript, the Book of Kells, and a biography of St. Patrick.

St. Columb's kept a box during his life. His box of relics was at first thought lost but was found in 1813, preserved by a number of monasteries. When it was opened by historians, it was found to contain the Vulgate.

More recently, carbon dating puts the date of the document to beyond Columb's lifetime, but not by much.

In any event, true to the combative saint's disdain for copyright, it is either a copy of a copy or a copy of a copy of a copy.


Note to Colm Cille's heirs: © Lloyd Duhaime 2011!!!