Copyright - a brief history

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Copyright is a species of legal protection that applies to a number of categories of work, principally the traditional "artistic" categories of literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works, and categories of work which approximate to these traditional categories. Among the latter are computer programs, which are given written expression in specialised languages and are, therefore, protected as "literary works".

Copyright has been recognised by the Irish courts as a property right, supported by statute. The justification for legislation in this area is twofold.

First, persons who create works of the intellect or who invest in their creation and dissemination are entitled as a matter of human right to secure a fair return for their creativity and investment.

Secondly, unless the rights of creators and investors to a fair return are supported, the community as a whole would be impoverished by the fact that, in many cases, these works would not be created or developed.

The Origins of Copyright

The scholars of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire were the first to be concerned about being recognised as the authors of their works, but they did not have any economic rights to speak of. It was not until the invention of printing in the late fifteenth century that a form of copyright protection was devised. Until then, the copying of a manuscript was a painstakingly slow process done mainly by monks in the confines of closed orders. It was limited to copying religious works for orders and the Royal courts of Europe. The majority of people were illiterate, with only privileged members of society having access to the writings. Early Irish manuscripts provide a well known illustration of a copyright dispute in such ancient times:

Ireland - Copyright in the 6th Century



Some scholars dispute the true outcome of this copyright litigation; while some traditions doubt whether the said trial was actually about unauthorised copying at all, others disagree and assert that it may even have led to the battle of Cuil Dremne.


The Development of Copyright Law

The advent of printing in the sixteenth century meant that the ability to print books easily and cheaply raised the issue of piracy. As the number of printers increased in England, the King exercised the royal prerogative to regulate the book trade and protect printers against piracy. This was the first of many decrees to control what was being printed. The Licensing Act of 1662 established a register of licensed books and introduced a requirement to deposit a copy of the the book to be licensed. Deposit was administered by the Stationers' Company who were given powers to seize books suspected of containing material hostile to the Church or Government. By 1681 the Stationers' company had been repealed, although the Stationers' Company continued to regulate the printing trade.

The Statute of Anne, enacted in 1710, was the first copyright Act in the world and introduced the concepts of an author being the owner of copyright, and the principle of fixed term protection for published works. Arising in part out of preparation for the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary Works, the International Copyright Act of 1886 was passed. The requirement to register foreign works was abolished, and an exclusive right to import or produce translations was introduced. The introduction of the Copyright Act, 1911 (which came into effect on July 1st, 1912) marked the next significant development in copyright law. This both repealed and consolidated most of the earlier legislation. Records, perforated rolls, sound recordings and works of architecture all gained protection, while the requirement to register copyright with the Stationers' Hall was abolished. The 1911 Act also abolished common law copyright protection in unpublished works, with the exception of unpublished paintings, drawings and photographs.

Copyright Law in Ireland

Notwithstanding the fact that English copyright protection had been extended to cover Ireland many years before the establishment of the Irish state in 1921, many of the cultural and economic patterns that had built up over the previous century continued to exist. The academic and literary figures (including W.B. Yeates) still tended to look to British academic presses and commercial publishers to put their works before the world. The Performing Rights Society (established in 1914) still functioned from London for the benefit of Irish composers and music publishers. Even attempts to stimulate the publication of scholarship in the Irish language and early Irish history were frustrated by the size of the market, publishers' indifference and a lack of technical resources.

With the establishment of the Irish State in 1921, Ireland lost all of its administrative structures and bodies that had caused the commercial and industrial property sectors of the economy to function. Initially, for example, there was no Irish Patent Office and registration of a design copyright did not take place because there was no administrative body to accept applications for registration. Although the right to assert a copyright was afforded in the common law, it was not until the introduction of the Industrial and Commercial Property (Protection) Act, 1927 that copyright law was put on a statutory footing. In addition to setting up the Irish Patent Office, the 1927 Act also dealt substantially with patents, trade marks and industrial designs. Part IV of the Act dealt specifically with copyright and made provisions for such matters as ownership, infringement, remedies, exemptions, compulsory licenses, works of joint and foreign authors, posthumous works, and the preservation of existing copyrights.

The next significant development in Irish copyright law occurred in 1964 with the introduction of the Copyright Act, 1963. The Act newly defined the rights of authors of literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works and established new copyrights in sound recordings, cinematograph films and published editions. It also bestowed limited dispute resolution functions on the Controller.

In more recent times, the Copyright and Related Rights Act 2000 (which came into operation on 1 January 2001), considerably extended the Controller's statutory functions in the copyright domain. In addition to the dispute resolution functions that existed under the 1963 Act, the Controller now has a role in regulating licensing schemes and proposed licensing schemes in relation to various areas which are subject to copyright and other rights. This function includes the establishment and maintenance of a number of related Registers.