Skip to content


what Colmcille really said

Mr. Justice Peter Charleton, in the course of his judgement on EMI Records & Ors -v- Eircom Ltd is quoted as having said the following:

‘ There is fundamental right to copyright in Irish Law. This has existed as part of Irish legal tradition since the time of Saint Colmcille. He is often quoted for his aphorism: le gach bó a buinín agus le gach leabhar a chóip (to each cow its calf and to every book its copy).’

As many have already noted, Colmcille didn’t say that at all; his opponent did. If anything, Colmcille invented copyleft.

Manus O’Donnell’s account:

Do inneis Finden a sceila art us don righ, ass ed adubhairt ris: “Do scrib C.C. mo leabhur gan fhis damh fen,”ar se, “aderim corub lim fen mac mo leabhur.”

“Aderim-se,” ar C.C., “nach mesde lebhur Findein ar scrib me ass, nach coir na neiche diadha do bi sa lebhur ud do muchadh no a bacudh dim fein no do duine eli a scribhadh no a leghadh no a siludh fan a cinedachaib; fos aderim ma do bi tarba dam-sa ina scribhadh, corb ail lium a chur a tarba do no poiplechaibh, gan dighbail Fhindein no a lebhair do techt ass, cor cedaigthe dam a scribudh.”

Is ansin ruc Diarmaid an breth oirrdearc .i. “le gach boin a boinin” .i. laugh “le gach lebhur a leabrán.”

Or, translated to English by A. O’ Kelleher and G. Schoepperle:

Finnen first told [High King Diarmaid] his story and he said “Colmcille hath copied my book without my knowing,” saith he “and I contend that the son of the book belongs to me.”

“I contend,” saith Colmcille, “that the book of Finnen is none the worse for my copying it, and it is not right that the divine words in that book should perish, or that I or any other should be hindered from writing them or reading them or spreading them among the tribes. And further I declare that it was right for me to copy it, seeing there was profit to me from doing in this wise, and seeing it was my desire to give the profit thereof to all peoples, with no harm therefore to Finnen or his book.”

Then it was that Diarmaid gave the famous judgement: “To every cow her young cow, that is, her calf, and to every book its transcript. And therefore to Finnen belongeth the book thou hast written, O Colmcille.”

Soon thereafter, of course, 3000 died in the Battle of the Book at Cooldrumman, bringing a rather literal meaning to the modern term “copyfight”. ‘Colmcille and the Battle of the Book: Technology, Law and Access to Knowledge in 6th Century Ireland’ is recommended for more background.