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The Birth of Copyright: Historical Underpinnings

How did early authors and printers share and profit from their work without it being stolen? Where does copyright law come from?

The first noteworthy dispute concerning protection of a creative work occurred around 560 A.D. in Ireland when Saint Columbia “borrowed” a valuable Latin Psalter belonging to Saint Finnian and made a copy. When Finnian found out, he demanded that Columbia return the copy. Columba refused and Finnian took his complaint to the King of Ireland. Columbia consented to having the dispute settled by the King because there were related. It didn’t help, Columbia lost. King Dermott said in an edict, “to every cow belong its calf, so to every book belong its copy.”

William Caxton’s introduction of the movable type printing press to England thrust literary ownership to the forefront of legal disputes. The number of books in Europe skyrocketed from mere thousands to nearly ten million books within fifty years of its introduction in 1476.

The first evidence of a formal grant of publication exclusivity came when the Senate of Venice, in the late 15th century, granted Johannes De Spira the exclusive right to print the letters of Cicero and Pliny for a limited five-year period. The Senate issued many similar grants following soon thereafter.

A reoccurring issue throughout early copyright-like disputes was that technological advancements were often ahead of any legislative action – governmental institutions were playing a perpetual game of catch-up. It wasn’t until 1710 that you see a modern version of what we think of today as copyright protection.

The Statute of Anne was the first genuine copyright law and continues to have the greatest influence on United States Copyright legislation. The Statute of Anne, adopted in 1710, gave authors a 14-year copyright term with the option to renew. The statute made copyright protection available to everyone and provided price-control provisions to prevent monopolies.

Today, the Berne Convention is the most widely accepted version of copyright protection, which was ratified in 1886 by 10 different countries. As of September 2014, 168 countries recognize its validity. The purpose behind the Berne convention is to globalize copyright protection. For countries under its jurisdiction, if a work is protected in one, it is protected in all.

The success of the Statute of Anne is likely the reason copyright law exists in the United States. We will provide more about American Copyright law in our next post.

Gary Brophy and Janise Marvin made substantial contributions to this post.

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Jon Pfeiffer is an experienced entertainment and copyright trial attorney practicing in Santa Monica. Jon is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California where he teaches Media Law. COM 570 covers First Amendment issues as well as copyright, defamation and privacy.  

  • Copyright
  • May 07, 2015

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