One of the earliest recorded copyright disputes took place in the 6th century in Ireland and involved Colmcille, (later St Colmcille). He had been visiting the monastery of St Finian of Moville. While there he copied an original manuscript of St Jerome’s Psalter, and this was done without the permission of Finian. On discovering this, Finian claimed ownership of the copy and demanded that Colmcille hand it over to him. The dispute was brought before Diarmuid, the High King of Ireland, for his decision. Diarmuid gave his judgement in favour of Finian, with the phrase that has endured over the centuries “ As to every Cow its Calf, so to every Book its Copy”. Apart from the legal impact of the judgement, the language is interesting.
One aspect is that the old Brehon law provided the very reasonable rule that a calf, wherever it might be found wandering, belonged to its mother. Also this was centuries before paper and printing made their appearance in Ireland, in the days when documents were laboriously hand-scripted onto Vellum, and Vellum was manufactured from treated calf-skin. This made the reasoning and the language all the more relevant.
This simple judgement is one of the earliest known descriptions and analysis of the concept of copyright, That is “You cannot copy an original work without the permission of it’s owner”.
In modern days copyright protects published and unpublished literary, scientific and artistic works, whatever the form of expression, provided such works are fixed in a tangible or material form. This means that if you can see it, hear it or touch it, it may be protected. Our most recent legislation, in 2000, extends existing protections to broadcasts, cable programmes, and original databases. There are also provisions concerning recordings of works of folklore, anonymous works and retransmission of encrypted broadcasts. The Act introduces into Irish Law the concept of moral rights. These are rights which belong to the author of a work no matter who the owner of the copyright is. The Act in effect establishes a “paternity right”, that is the right to be identified as the author of a work and an ” integrity right” , the right not to have a work subjected to a treatment which could damage the honour or reputation of the author.
While copyright may protect literary and artistic works, this does not mean that these works have to be of any particular standard or quality, and both sublime and horrendous literary and artistic efforts enjoy equal protection.
The time duration of protection for copyright is considerable. It lasts for seventy years after the death of an author in the case of a literary, dramatic, musical, artistic work or an original database and also seventy years in the case of a film, after the death of the last of the principal director, screen play author, and music composer. With a sound recording, broadcast and typographical arrangement copyright lasts for fifty years.
When copyright does expire, it means that the work is available for general use, and can be published or adapted. In the next year one very significant literary work, James Joyce’s Ulysses, will emerge from the protection of copyright. There is general agreement that this will be a good thing for that work, and will lift restrictions on interpretations of the book, and will also allow for unrestricted performances and readings of the work.
In terms of musical composition, the copyright in the Irish national anthem, “Amhrán na bhFiann” will expire at the end of this year. , This was composed in 1907 by Patrick Heeney who died nearly 70 years ago. Peadar Kearney wrote the English lyrics to the anthem and it is on the 70th anniversary of his death that the copyright will lapse in accordance with Irish copyright legislation. The Irish State purchased the copyright for the anthem for £1,000 in 1933. One of the reasons for the State buying this copyright was to ensure that the anthem would always be freely accessible and available and to ensure that performance fees are not charged for its use. Also, with the State owning the copyright it could make sure that the anthem was not used in an inappropriate context or in a disrespectful manner. An example of this is the version by the Sex Pistols of ‘God Save the Queen’. Other examples might be the Jimi Hendrix’s version of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock in 1969 and many variations of ” La Marseillaise”.
Such variations may represent a valid artistic interpretation, and, whatever about their artistic merit, possibly have copyright protection.