7 August 2017
Why Were There No Copyright Laws in the Roman Empire?
A guest blog by Valeriya Leonteva
The Roman Empire is famed for classics which are still central to our society: The Odyssey, the Aeneid, Metamorphoses, and so many others. Many of these works were produced during a period of time that has been called the Golden Age of Latin literature. This ‘Golden Age’ was between 81 BC and AD 17. It is interesting that despite the success of these authors, there had not been an attempt to introduce some form of payment for the copying of their texts. A case by Mary Beard made in the NY Times even suggests that copyright laws were crucial to the prosperity of authors, without which they failed to profit from their own works. This seems difficult to believe given the high status of some classical writers today.
How did the book industry work in the Roman Empire?
The Roman Empire had a prosperous book trade. The first Roman publishers emerged during the first century BC. These were not publishers in the modern sense but those people who organised teams of slaves to copy books on their behalf. Book merchants paid slaves to copy out manuscripts which were sold in shops. Due to the lack of copyright law, book merchants did not have to pay to copy out texts. However, copying by those other than professional booksellers was rare.
Was there a need for copyright law?
Some Romans were avid readers: by the 4th century AD, Rome had 28 large libraries where citizens could go and read books free of charge. One of the main streets leading up to the Roman Forum was called the argiletum (according to some accounts, the name was derived from the name of a Greek scoundrel) and was comprised of many bookshops. These suggest a demand for books in large quantities, and certainly some would have had to be copied several times in order to fill the shelves of these libraries and bookshops. Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis, Roman poet) complains about this very issue:
“My book is thumbed by our soldiers posted overseas, and even in Britain people quote my words. What’s the point? I don’t make a penny from it.”
Why were copyright laws not established?
Unfortunately for the authors themselves, producing copies of their works was an expensive practice. Copying texts was so expensive that an added cost would have discouraged the practice. This is because a team of highly skilled, literate slaves was needed. These were not conventional slaves – they fulfilled job roles which are regarded highly in our own society, such as accountants or physicians. Of course, there were also slaves who fulfilled manual tasks, and life for them was painfully difficult. However, maintaining skilled slaves could be expensive because they were allowed to earn their own money, as well as needing food and shelter. According to Albrecht Dihle, a highly regarded German historian of the antiquity, many literate slaves who were freed went on to write their own histories, such as Phlegon of Tralles and Trogus Pompeius. It was rare for a slave to be freed because it was typically done when they were able to earn enough money to buy their freedom, and unlike the period prior to the American Civil War which saw some slaves buying freedom, this was restricted to skilled slaves.
Therefore, anyone copying books would have had to pay much the same expense as a professional publisher today. Roman book sellers would sometimes pay a well-regarded author for first access to a text, but they had no exclusive rights to a work and authors were not normally paid anything for their work, no matter how widely it was circulated.
Additionally, there was another reason which may have deterred the development of copyright law: the existence of the servus publicus. This literally translates to ‘public slave’, and these slaves worked in magistrates’ offices, pontifical offices and temples. Those slaves working in temples would have had to copy scripts and texts by famous authors, especially if they were working in the public libraries discussed earlier. This means that the state would have had a reason to deter the development of copyright laws, in order to avoid paying authors.
It wasn’t all bad
Despite the lack of money, authors did have a lot of prestige. They often gained fame from winning prizes and participating in public events. Moreover, it was possible for authors to acquire patrons, who paid them to produce works. Patronage was widespread across many periods of history, particularly in the middle ages and the Renaissance. The idea was that wealthy kings, noblemen, clergy (or anyone lucky enough to possess significant wealth) would pay an artist, musician or writer to produce works which would reflect well on them by promoting their family, establishment or name. Famous patrons from other periods of history included Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and the Medici family. Their fame and prestige meant that many Roman authors profited from their works in other ways.
Find out more about copyright law today here: https://www.ark-group.com/event/legal-libraries-2017#.WXm9UITyvIU
- Mary Beard, ‘Scrolling Down the Ages’, The New York Times (April, 2016) [http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/19/books/review/Beard-t.html]
- Albrecht Dihle, Greek and Latin Literature of the Roman Empire: From Augustus to Justinian (London: Routledge, 1994)
- Adolf Berger, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law (The American Philosophical Society, 1953)
(c) Valeriya Leonteva, 2017. All Rights Reserved.