Donaldson v Beckett

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Donaldson v Becket (1774) 2 Brown's Parl. Cases (2d ed.) 129, 1 Eng. Rep. 837; 4 Burr. 2408, 98 Eng. Rep. 257; 17 Cobbett's Parl. Hist. 953 (1813) is the ruling by the United Kingdom House of Lords that held that copyright in published works was not perpetual and was instead subject to statutory limits. Scholars disagree on the reasoning behind the decision.

Case Name[edit]

The spelling of the chief respondent in the case, Thomas Becket, sometimes appears as Beckett. For those looking to choose one spelling over the other, it would be more correct to use Becket. First, Becket overwhelmingly spelled his surname with one “t” not two “tt.”[1] Second, many of the original, contemporaneous records in the case also spelled his surname Becket. Those records include the original proceedings of the dispute in the Court of Chancery. Additionally, the manuscript records of the appeal in the House of Lords, including the manuscript minutes and manuscript journal of the House of Lords, caption the case using the spelling "Becket," though sometimes in the text of the proceedings they use the spelling "Beckett". The most widely cited reports of the case, those prepared by James Burrow in 1776[2] and Josiah Brown (1st edition) in 1783,[3] also spelled his surname Becket. The “Beckett” variation seems to have gained ground from a decision made in 1803 by T.E. Tomlins, the editor of the second edition of Brown’s report of the case,[4] to change the spelling to “Beckett” in the caption and then to a decision made by the clerk of the journals in the House of Lords, when the House printed its manuscript journal in around 1806, to do the same.


Statute of Anne

The first modern-like copyright statute was the Statute of Anne, 8 Anne c. 19 (1710), in which Parliament granted a fourteen-year term for a copyright, extendable once for another 14 years if the author was still alive at the expiration of the first term. Parliament also provided a special grandfather clause allowing those works already published before the statute to enjoy twenty-one years of protection. When the twenty-one years were up, the booksellers—for copyrights in published works were usually held and exploited by publishers and booksellers, not authors—asked for an extension. Parliament declined to grant it.

Thwarted by Parliament, the booksellers turned to the courts for relief. They attempted to secure a ruling that there was a natural or customary right to ownership of the copyright under the common law. The booksellers arranged a collusive lawsuit, Tonson v Collins, but the courts threw it out. A second lawsuit was later brought, Millar v Taylor 4 Burr. 2303, 98 Eng. Rep. 201 (K.B. 1769), concerning infringement of the copyright on James Thomson's poem "The Seasons" by Robert Taylor, and the booksellers won a favourable judgment. (It helped that Lord Mansfield, the chief judge on the case, had previously been counsel to the booksellers.)

Donaldson v Becket was brought regarding the same poem at issue in Millar and an injunction was granted by the Court of Chancery on the precedent of Millar v. Taylor. An appeal from the Chancery decree was carried to the House of Lords, which at that time functioned as the United Kingdom's court of final appeal, in February 1774.

Photograph of Frontispiece – The Seasons by James Thomson Published by Alexander Donaldson



Counsel was heard on 4–9 February.

Seven months previously, in the case of Hinton v. Donaldson, the Scots Court of Session had ruled that copyright did not exist in the common law of Scotland, so that Alexander Donaldson (an appellant in Donaldson v. Becket with his older brother, John) could lawfully publish Thomas Stackhouse's New History of the Holy Bible. Attorney General Thurlow, speaking for the appellants, referred to the Scottish case in his opening argument to the Lords on 4 February:

[Attorney-General Thurlow] concluded his speech with a compliment to his learned coadjutor, and a hope, that as the lords of session in Scotland had freed that country from a monopoly which took its rise from the chimerical idea of the actuality of literary property, their lordships, whom he addressed, would likewise, by a decree of a similar nature, rescue the cause of literature and authorship from the hands of a few monopolizing booksellers.

On 9 February, the twelve Judges of the King's Bench, Common Pleas, and the Exchequer were asked to give their opinions on five questions:

1. "Whether, at common law, an author of any book or literary composition, had the sole right of first printing and publishing the same for sale, and might bring an action against any person who printed, published, and sold the same, without his consent?[5]

According to the journal of the House of Lords, eight of the Judges answered affirmatively, three negatively.

2. "If the author had such right originally, did the law take it away upon his printing and publishing such book or literary composition, and might any person afterward reprint and sell, for his own benefit, such book or literary composition, against the will of the author?[5]

The journal states that the judges answered this question in the negative with a vote of seven to four.

3. "If such action would have lain at common law, is it taken away by the statute of 8th Anne: and is an author, by the said statute, precluded from every remedy except on the foundation of the said statute, and on the terms and conditions prescribed thereby?"[5]

According to the Lords' journal, this question was answered affirmatively, six to five. However, some historians believe that the tallies in the journal report are incorrect, and that a majority of the judges held that a common-law copyright was not "taken away" by the statute.[6] Other scholars believe the tally was correctly reported.[7]

4. "Whether the author of any literary composition, and his assigns, had the sole right of printing and publishing the same, in perpetuity, by the common law?"

According to the Lords' journal, the Judges answered this question affirmatively by seven to four.

5. "Whether this right is any way impeached, restrained, or taken away, by the statute 8th Anne?"

According to the journal, the Judges answered affirmatively six to five. As with question three, scholars disagree on whether this tally was correctly reported.

The judges presented their answers in the period from 15 to 21 February. On 22 February the motion was made to reverse the Chancery decree. The Lords then debated, the record showing that five Lords spoke. Four of these, Lord Camden, Lord Chancellor Apsley, the Bishop of Carlisle, and the Earl of Effingham, spoke in favour of the motion to reverse the decree, and one, Lord Lyttleton, spoke against the motion.

Lord Camden, in his speech, was scathing toward the booksellers:

The arguments attempted to be maintained on the side of the respondents, were founded on patents, privileges, Star Chamber decrees, and the bye (sic) laws of the Stationers' Company; all of them the effects of the grossest tyranny and usurpation; the very last places in which I should have dreamt of finding the least trace of the common law of this kingdom; and yet, by a variety of subtle reasoning and metaphysical refinements, have they endeavoured to squeeze out the spirit of the common law from premises in which it could not possibly have existence.

In the end, the full house voted to reverse the decree against Donaldson. Thus the Lords rejected perpetual copyright and held that published works were subject to the durational limits of the Statute of Anne. As a result, works would fall into the public domain after their copyright terms expired.


Robert Forbes, Bishop of Ross and Caithness, noted in his journal entry of 26 February 1774, that when news of the Lords' decision in Donaldson v. Becket reached Scotland, there were

great rejoicings in Edinburgh upon victory over literary property; bonfires and illuminations, ordered tho’ by a mob, with drum and 2 fifes.[8]

Later that year, UK booksellers sought to extend their statutory copyright to 14 years through the Booksellers' Bill but, having passed the House of Commons, the bill was defeated in the Lords.[9] In 1834, the United States Supreme Court essentially followed the House of Lords' decision in Donaldson with Wheaton v. Peters, rejecting any perpetual common law copyright in favor of the statutory instrument still in existence today.

Scholars disagree on the reasoning underlying the decision. Some argue that the House affirmatively rejected the notion that a common law copyright existed before the Statute of Anne.[10][11] But other scholars argue that the case did not determine the issue.[7][12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ English Short Title Catalogue 
  2. ^ Burrow, James (1776), Reports of Cases Adjudged in the Court of King's Bench 4, p. 2408 
  3. ^ Brown, Josiah (1783), Reports of Cases upon Appeals and Writs of Error, in the High Court of Parliament 7, p. 88 
  4. ^ Brown, Josiah & Tomlins, T.E. (1803), Reports of Cases upon Appeals and Writs of Error, in the High Court of Parliament (2d edition) 2, p. 129 
  5. ^ a b c The History of Copyright: Donaldson v Beckett
  6. ^ Ochoa, Tyler & Rose, Mark (2002), "The Anti-Monopoly Origins of the Patent and Copyright Clause", Journal of the Patent and Trademark Office Society 49: 675 .
  7. ^ a b Gomez-Arostegui, Tomas (2014), "Copyright at Common Law in 1774", Connecticut Law Review 47: 1 .
  8. ^ Henry Paton, ed., The Lyon in Mourning or a Collection of Speeches Letters Journals etc. Relative to the Affairs of Prince Charles Edward Stuart by the Rev. Robert Forbes, A.M., Bishop of Ross and Caithness 1746-1775, vol. 3, p. 294, (Edinburgh 1896)
  9. ^ Rose (1988)
  10. ^ Abrams, Howard B. (1983), "The Historic Foundation of American Copyright Law: Exploding the Myth of Common-Law Copyright", Wayne Law Review 29: 1119 .
  11. ^ Deazley, Ronan (2003), "The Myth of Copyright at Common Law", The Cambridge Law Journal 62 (1): 106–133, doi:10.1017/S0008197303006251 .
  12. ^ Rose, Mark (1988), "The Author as Proprietor: "Donaldson v. Becket" and the Genealogy of Modern Authorship", Representations 23: 51 .


  • Goldstein, Paul (1994), Copyright's Highway: From Gutenberg to the Celestial Jukebox, New York: Hill and Wang, ISBN 0-8090-5381-0 .
  • Gomez-Arostegui, H.T. (2014), "Copyright at Common Law in 1774", Connecticut Law Review 47 (1): 1–57 .
  • Lessig, Lawrence (2004), Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, New York: Penguin Press, ISBN 1-59420-006-8 .
  • Patterson, Lyman Ray (1968), Copyright in Historical Perspective, Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press .
  • Patterson, Lyman Ray & Lindberg, Stanley W. (1991), The Nature of Copyright: A Law of Users' Rights, Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, ISBN 0-8203-1347-5 .
  • Rose, M. (1988), "The author as proprietor: Donaldson v. Becket and the genealogy of modern authorship", Representations 23 (1): 51–85, doi:10.1525/rep.1988.23.1.99p0230p .

External links[edit]

  • Alexander Donaldson and another v Thomas Beckett and others (1774) 2 Bro PC 129, 1 ER 837 (22 February 1774)