Recent years have provided us with a bounty of excellent original historical research. Scholars like Oren Bracha, Ronan Deazley, and Dotan Oliar have plumbed early England and the United States. Art historians like Elizabeth Armstrong, Lisa Pon and Christopher Witcombe have done wondrous research on the Renaissance period. An article posted on SSRN and forthcoming in the Spring 2007 issue of the Boston University International Law Journal by Katharina de la Durantaye of Columbia Law School entitled "Origins of the Protection of Literary Authorship in Ancient Rome," does the same for Ancient Rome.
Ms. Durantaye, in 76 pages, carefully reviews the ranks of authors in the context of their social and political standing. The abstract, which is a pretty good summary, states:
The Rome of classical antiquity had no copyright law to protect literary works. This study shows that literary works were not for as much unprotected. This protection came, however, in another form than the strictly legal. It was effected through a system of social conventions and codes that served to protect the literary work. So effectively, in fact, that no law needed supplement them.
Plagiarized, corrupt, or unauthorized publications of literary works called forth immediate and lively opposition. The ancient Romans saw the author as having received inspiration for his or her work from the gods. It was this higher authority which determined the right to decide upon the conditions of the presentation of this work to the public. To violate this right was tantamount to violating the will of the inspiring gods. To do so might bring shame and even retribution with it.
Once the author had given form to his or her inspiration and made his or her work public, the work was given over to the public domain. From this point onwards, independent reproductions of texts, as long as they were faithful ones, met with no opposition, or even resentment from the readers and writers of the day. As the author's goal was never the making of money—considered an unworthy aim for a writer—such reproductions served the true aim of the writer—achieving immortality in the memory of his generation, and of future ones.
One wonders how Cicero would regard our current copyright regime and whether he might apply his saying: "The strictest law often causes the most serious wrong."