The origins of copyright law, or at least the notion that an individual has an exclusivity to his or her own creative or intellectual property, can be traced back to ancient Greece. It is during the sixth century B.C., that the concept of the individual self gave rise to the desire to own one’s own works of literature, or even one’s own ideas. Later, the Romans developed a healthy book trade by using large groups of literate slaves to copy manuscripts simultaneously, thus producing as many as 30 copies at a time. However, neither the Greeks nor Romans had any financial protection from having their work stolen by others.
The oldest case of anyone claiming ownership of the printed word that resulted in a judgement is reputed to have taken place in Ireland in 560 A.D. At the time, all written documents such as manuscripts or books were painstakingly produced by monks. The work in question was a copy of a Latin Psalter belonging to St. Finnian. According to St. Finnian, St. Columba had secretly copied the Psalter without St. Finnian’s permission. When St. Finnian discovered what St. Columba had done, he demanded that St. Columba surrender the copy to him. St. Finnian’s argument was that the book was of considerable value and that he was the rightful owner of the original and any copies. St. Finnian petitioned the High King of Ireland, Dermott, to seek redress.
The story goes that having no precedent for deciding such a case, the King used existing law that governed livestock ownership to make his judgement. Dermott ordered St. Columba to return the copy of the Psalter to St. Finnian, issuing the edict that “to every cow belong its calf, so to every book belong its copy.”
With the development of paper (prior to this vellum was used) and Gutenberg’s movable type in the 15th century, book printing in Europe grew at an explosive rate. It didn’t take long for printers to seek protection from piracy. Printing was an expensive endeavor, even in the 15th century, and printers such as Bernardino Rasma petitioned the Venetian Court for exclusive printing rights in 1496, stating that, “For when [a printer-publisher] shall have set himself to produce a book of rare beauty-which entails the absorption of all his capital in it-should his brother merchants come to hear of it, they use every cunning device to steal the proofs of the new work . . . and set to . . . print the book before the original designer of the book can finish his edition, which, when it is ready for issue, finds the market spoiled by the pirated edition.” (Horatio F. Brown, The Venetian Printing Press 1469-1800, (1891), 53.) The Senate of Venice did in fact issue the first grants to a German printer in 1469. (Patry, Copyright Law, Chapter 1.)
Printing had become a booming business in England as well, resulting in the King assuming regulation of the printing and book trade, as well as providing protection from piracy. To this end, the Licensing Act of 1662 was passed. The Act created a register of licensed books and required printers to provide the Stationers’ Company with a copy of any book to be licensed. The Stationers’ Company was also given the right to seize any book they deemed offensive or hostile to the Church or government. By 1681, the Act was repealed and the Stationers’ Company had established rights of ownership to any registered books, thus allowing them to maintain control of the printing trade. The new bylaw established by the Stationers’ Company gave them not only a monopoly on printing, but also enormous powers of censorship. Many who did not agree with the government or the Church were forced to flee England, living in exile in the more tolerant Netherlands.
The Stationers’ Company’s powers were finally brought to an end when Parliament refused all their petitions to be granted exclusive rights to print within England. Despite continued lobbying by the Company, the Licensing Act was not renewed in 1695.
What followed in 1710 resulted in the passing of what is considered the first modern copyright law. The bill that would become the Statute of Anne, named after the reigning queen, was presented to the House of Commons in January, 1710, and finally passed in April of that same year.The Statute of Anne provided “encouragement of learning,by vesting the copies of printed books in the authors or purchasers of such copies during the times therein mentioned.” It continues to grant the author of any book in print the ownership and right to print said book for the term of 21 years; to the author of any book already written but not yet printed or published or to be written in the future granted the exclusive right to print for a term of 14 years beginning from the day of the book’s first publishing. If the author was living at the end of the initial 14-year term, the copyright could be extended for an additional 14 years. (Statute of Anne, 1710, 8 Ann., c. 19 (Eng.), named after the then Queen of Anne who supported the creative arts.)
Unfortunately the Statute of Anne did not settle the argument over copyright, since some believed that granting authors perpetual copyright created what amounted to a monopoly. In a 1744 landmark case, Donaldson v Beckett, the House of Lords voted against perpetual copyright and established the legal concept of Public Domain. (Selle, Hendrik, Open Content? Ancient Thinking on Copyright, Revue internationale des droits de l’antiquité 55 (2008) 469-84.)
As a result, works such as those by Chaucer and Shakespeare, that were written and printed prior to the Statute of Anne were not subject to copyright and could therefore be freely printed. Consequently the dominance of London booksellers, purported by many to have an unfair monopoly, was ended and competition among printers, publishers and booksellers increased. (Van Horn Melton, James (2001). “The rise of the public in Enlightenment Europe.Cambridge University Press.” Cambridge University Press. pp. 140–141)
The original debate over ownership that began as early as the sixth century rages on. Educators and publishers clash over what can and cannot be reproduced without royalties and permissions, internet publishers and print publishers argue over who owns what rights, artists who seek greater protection of their economic right to works are constantly threatened by individuals who simply want the latest music downloaded to their device and who already possess the technology to procure that musical work without paying the artist. Just as in previous centuries, copyright continues to be a bone of contention among various groups and individuals in modern society and perhaps will always be.