How Jewish Law Came to Recognize Copyright

August 23, 2016 | Roberta Rosenthal Kwall
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In From Maimonides to Microsoft: The Jewish Law of Copyright since the Birth of Print, Neil Netanel explains how the invention of the printing press led rabbinic scholars to devise a concept of intellectual property, and how this concept has developed in halakhic thinking since then. Roberta Rosenthal Kwall writes:

Netanel’s book . . . demonstrates how the halakhah of copyright has been influenced by historical and cultural factors operating both within and outside the Jewish community. As Netanel tells it, rabbis in Rome issued their first known ban on reprinting books in 1518. In some ways, the earliest bans mirrored the papal bans and secular book privileges then in vogue. (The book privileges allowed recipients a monopoly over the printing and publishing of a book for a designated period of time.) . . .

In fashioning their bans, however, the rabbis . . . drew heavily from traditional Jewish sources. . . . This influence is evident in the first ban’s emphasis on talmudic injunctions against encroaching on another’s livelihood. (The secular book privileges, by way of contrast, emphasized the sovereign’s discretion to reward deserving subjects.) . . .

[Nevertheless], the rabbinic ban represented, according to Netanel, a “bold halakhic innovation.”

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