Skip to main content

Proto-Copyright in Medieval India

Rather intrigued to see what looks, to me, like a reference to plagiarism and the punishment for it in the 16th century Telugu Story of Manu. I'm now wondering if India, or parts of it (at any rate), had proto-copyright systems in place which treated plagiarism as a criminal offence.
The relevant verse from The Story of Manu by Allasani Peddana (translated by Rao & Shulman) reads as follows:
"9. A rogue poet, for want of any other means to feed his family,
steals, in desperation, from the vast forest of palm-leaf manuscripts.
But scholars catch him at it, his poetry loses its charm,
and he's put in the stocks under the gaze of the king."

Even though the contemporary understanding of copyright in India could be considered to be one of the legacies of colonialism, perhaps the 19th century colonial imposition of an English version of copyright in India was one which may have been reasonably easily assimilated into indigenous jurisprudence if indeed plagiarism was already, at some level, anyway treated as a criminal offence in (some) Indian states (such as in Vijayanagar as The Story of Manu appears to indicate).

From the verse, it appears that the medieval understanding of copyright in India was inconsistent authorial value, of the lack thereof, in medieval England where plagiarism was rife. Also, the verse seems to recognise the economic imperatives which now drive copyright, and not just the supposedly moral right of authors to attribution alone (possibly on an empty stomach).