Felonius Monk and the Right to Copy

Saint Columba, on a stained glass window in Iona Abbey, via WikipediaToday is the feast day of St Columba (in Irish, variously: Colamcille, Columcille, Colm Cille etc).

To mark the occasion, I present a(n in)famous episode (pdfs here and here; image here, purchase here) in his life, retold – under the above title – by my Trinity colleague Dr Eoin O’Neill, who says that his tale below is most effectively delivered in the accents of Chicago of the 1930s, as interpreted by Hollywood:

The Monks had a corner on the market

In the early days of the monastic age in Ireland, (it only lasted for ~1,000 years),
the faithful were attracted to regional monasteries by various marketing techniques such as the sight of rare and sacred objects eg finely worked gold vessels and rare books.

Rivalry between monasteries was rife, and when the renowned monk Colamcille (a scion of the house of Uí Néill, the ruling dynasty) went to visit the abbot Finian at his monastery (possibly Moville or Clonard), he noted that Finian had a fine book in the scriptorium, (a copy of the Psalms: the recording media used normally was the skin of a calf). Finian had diligently procured this copy abroad through his network, no small feat in the early part of the sixth century, given the firewalls that were then in vogue.

No Open Source code policy

The noble monk sought from Finian a Licence to copy this work so he could use it in his own monastery, but this Licence to copy was refused. He was however permitted to read the sacred manuscript in the scriptorium, and the local monks marvelled at how he diligently pursued his theological readings until late into the night, when less pious monks had gone to bed.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Imagine the consternation of the hosts when it was discovered that their guest had indeed not only studied diligently in the monastery scriptorium at night; he had downloaded the text with his quill pen onto some spare calf-hides, and indeed had secretly transmitted the copy to the safety of his own monastery. Demands from Finian for the return of the copy were ignored by Colamcille, and eventually Finian had to seek redress.

Enter the lawyers …

This case was serious enough to call in the law, and so the High King of Ireland, Diarmuid, (also an O’Neill, who doubled as a Justice of the Supreme Court, and ruled on disputes of a serious nature,) was petitioned to try this major breach of copyright.

Intellectual Property rights recognised

Despite the skillful arguments of Colamcille, the abbot Finian’s property rights were recognized, and the King made a famous judgment: “to every cow its calf, to every book its copy”.

Reaction of the Open Source community

The haughty member of the Uí Néill, (Colamcille) was not impressed, and did not buy into the King’s proposition. He pointed out bitterly that the work in question suffered no damage in the copying process, and the work of God was all the better furthered by his actions in bringing the information to a wider audience.

Arguments can get overheated: Battle Royal ensues

So great was his rage at this decision of the King (who he felt should have been counted on to uphold the dignity of a kinsman) that the felonious monk, Colamcille, further forgot his vows, raised an army and marched against the King. In the ensuing battle many soldiers were killed: the felonious monk was defeated, captured, tried and sentenced.


Colamcille was sentenced to the cruellest fate that could be imposed upon him at that time: he was sent to live in Scotland on the island of Iona for the rest of his life. In the judgment, “his feet were never to touch the soil of Ireland again”. Like many who went to law over an IP case, he repented of his foolishness.

The contrived solution to uphold the law

In his long years in Scotland, the reputation of the monk and the monastery he founded grew to mythical proportions. Absolute rulings usually cause trouble, and eventually the wisdom of the felonious monk was desperately needed in the higher councils of ecclesiastical argument, so he had to be invited to make a journey back to Ireland for a Church Synod. To keep the letter of the original ruling, he had to wear shoes to which were tied bundles of Scottish earth, so that his feet never touched Irish soil.

Long term unintended consequences

On the monastery of Iona founded by Colamcille was produced (possibly about 800AD), the most splendid illuminated manuscript of the Early Middle Ages, a copy of the Four Gospels, thereby continuing the Open Source Code ethic espoused by the supposedly repentant monk and known to the Irish as the Great Book of Colamcille. It has been preserved since the wars of the 1640s in the Library of Trinity College Dublin where it goes under the title of the Book of Kells. The value of this tourist attraction, and the fees paid by visitors to view it have attracted further interest: the Town Council of Kells has recently demanded that the book be returned to that location where it had for centuries been held for security, following the visits of some overexcited tourists from Norway and Denmark to the better monasteries in the period from 800 to 1000. However on account of its cultural value and its accessibility to great numbers of overseas visitors who flock to Trinity , it is unlikely that the Book will be again disturbed .

Facsimile Copies (not faxes) of the Book are available from the Swiss Licencee [Faksimile Verlag, Lucerne, Switzerland] for about €20,000 per copy. … [Bernard Meehan (the Keeper of Manuscripts at TCD Library) has produced the very beautiful The Book Of Kells Gift Edition, which is rather cheaper than the Swiss facsimile; an app is now available for the iPad; and the TCD Library has recently made high-quality scans of all 677 pages of the Book of Kells available in their new Digital Collections online repository].

(With apologies to Manus O’Donnell, whose copyright has lapsed as he wrote his version, less floridly, in the early 1600s)