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History of Intellectual Property Rights

• One of the first known references to intellectual property protection dates

from 500 B.C.E., when chefs in the Greek colony of Sybaris were granted year-
long monopolies for creating particular culinary delights.

• There are at least three other notable references to intellectual property in

ancient times—these cases are cited in Bruce Bugbee's formidable work The
Genesis of American Patent and Copyright Law (Bugbee 1967).

• In the first case, Vitruvius (257–180 B.C.E.) is said to have revealed intellectual
property theft during a literary contest in Alexandria. While serving as judge in
the contest, Vitruvius exposed the false poets who were then tried, convicted,
and disgraced for stealing the words and phrases of others.

• The second and third cases also come from Roman times (first Century C.E.).
Although there is no known Roman law protecting intellectual property, Roman
jurists did discuss the different ownership interests associated with an
intellectual work and how the work was codified—e.g., the ownership of a
painting and the ownership of a table upon which the painting appears.
• There is also reference to literary piracy by the Roman epigrammatist Martial.
In this case, Fidentinus is caught reciting the works of Martial without citing the

• The Roman author Martial regarded his work as children and labelled the
person misappropriating his work as a kidnapper or plagiarus – an old Roman
law label for the theft of slaves or children.

• The Roman commercial book trade in the first century AD comprised scribes
making copies of texts for both individual customers and mass consumption,
and was probably the basis of the world’s first publishers’ association.

• With much efficiency and low costs, misappropriation of texts between

publishers was a threat. It was to counter such a threat that the first Publishers’
Association was formed by the leading Roman publishers in the second century
AD ‘for the better protection of their interests in literary property, and that
each member bound himself not to interfere with the undertakings of his
fellow members’.
• Although there were no institutions or conventions of intellectual property
protection as such in Ancient Greece or Rome, from Roman times to the birth
of the Florentine Republic, however, there were many franchises, privileges,
and royal favours granted surrounding the rights to intellectual works.

• Between the fall of the Roman Empire (at the beginning of the fifth century),
and the twelfth century, the monopoly of storing, copying and producing
books was enjoyed by the monasteries and other ecclesiastical

• It is often alleged that this period, the ‘Monastic Age’, gave rise to the first
copyright decision Finnian v. Columba (c. 550 AD), where the Irish abbot
Finnian accused another monk Columba from a rival monastery of
surreptitiously making a copy of a Book of Psalms which Finnian had acquired
previously in Rome.

• The dispute ends with the famous judgment of King Diarmid: ‘To every cow
her calf, to every book its copy’.
• Although subsequent research proves this charming tale of warring saints
to be apocryphal, this tale does rightly set out an early legal precept
adopted by the monasteries in relation to copying, that the owner of a
manuscript was understood to possess the right to copy the work.

• This ‘property’ right was often commercially exploited, as the Finnian tale
shows, by the monasteries who charged a fee for permission to copy one
of their books.

• One of the first statutes that protected authors' rights was issued by the
Republic of Florence on June 19, 1421, to Filippo Brunelleschi, a famous

• This statute not only recognized the rights of authors and inventors to the
products of their intellectual efforts; it built in an incentive mechanism
that became a prominent feature of Anglo-American intellectual property

• For several reasons, including Guild influence, the Florentine patent statute of 1421
issued only the single patent to Brunelleschi.

• In contrast to patent institutions in Europe, literary works remained largely

unprotected until the arrival of Gutenberg's printing press in the fifteenth century.
Acquisition of new printing technology was the primary force behind the early
Venetian intellectual property laws relating to books. The 1469 privilege granted to
Johannes of Speyer was akin to a modern-day patent grant as it gave him the
exclusive right of exercising the trade of printing in Venice for five years, and the
right to stop the operation of competing printing presses with fines and with the
confiscation of tools and books.

• The basis of the first lasting patent institution of intellectual property protection is
found in a 1474 statute of the Venetian Republic (150 years before England's
Statute of Monopolies).

• The system was sophisticated and the rights of inventors were recognized. An
incentive mechanism was included, compensation for infringement was
established, and a term limit on inventors' rights was imposed.

• However, other privileges resembled our modern concept of ‘copyright’

law and were limited to the right to print or deal in a particular book.

• Even then, it was clear that such copyright privileges could act as
barriers to access to information and knowledge. The 1479 Episcopal
privilege, for instance, was granted by the Bishop of Würzburg to three
printers for the printing of the breviary book; the book was compulsorily
required by all the clergy of the Bishop’s diocese.

• Protection from competition (which certainly was a reasonable

expectation from the printing centres such as Leipzig and Frankfurt)
ensured a reasonable return ‘for the outlay involved in printing these
large and handsome books’.

• Early ‘copyright’ privileges gave not only printing rights but rights of
importation into the territory.

• However, none of these privileges was actually accorded to the author of

the book until the Venetian privilege of 1486 which was granted to
Marcus Antonius Sabellicus for his history of Venice.

• After this, regular privileges for particular books were accorded either to
authors on the basis that others may ‘reap the fruits of his labours’ (ne
alieni colligant fructus laborum et vigiliarum suarum), or to publishers
who wished protection for the trouble and expenses involved in printing
and publishing the books.

• Nothing, however, came of these early authors’ rights, and the first
authors’ laws emanated instead from England.

• Before the printing press arrived in Britain, people known as stationers

published books. They copied out books by hand, illustrated, bound and
sold them. They also sold writing materials, much like modern stationers.

• In 1403, stationers in the City of London formed themselves into a guild or

professional body.

• The introduction of the printing press into England in 1476 led to different
regulatory and censorship mechanisms.

• At first the British Crown regulated this new industry case by case. It would
issue litterae patentes, letters patent or patents, giving a publisher the exclusive
right or monopoly to publish a work or class of works.

• In 1557 King Philip and Queen Mary gave the stationers a royal charter. The
purpose of the charter was “to make due provision for the protection of their
loyal subjects against divers Books, Pamphlets and Broadsheets which . . .
have gravely endangered both the spiritual welfare of the people and the
peace of this realm”.

• The charter did not do away with existing publishing patents, but it created a
Stationers’ Company and gave it a monopoly to print in London.