Martin Luther and Intellectual Property

May 17, 2019  

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Martin Luther is a central figure to the early development of intellectual property, as John L. Flood argues in “The Book in Reformation Germany”. (In J.-F. Gilmont [ed.] & K. Maag [trans.]. The Reformation and the Book [pp. 21-103]. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 1998.) And this should not be surprising: Luther was a prolific writer whose works attracted great interest, working in the aftermath of a technological change – the invention of the printing press – that made copying content much easier. In fact, he faced a curiously modern problem: a profusion of hastily produced inferior copies of his work. (52-53) Though he criticized the “greed and envy” of those producing unauthorized copies, Luther’s primary concern seems to have been about the accuracy of the text. In response to this problem, Luther devised two “marks of quality” to help consumers avoid unauthorized editions. (53-54) Flood observes: “As a result of his bad experiences Luther gave some thought to measures that might be taken to protect what he wrote. Thus, unwittingly, he was one of the earliest proponents of the idea of the protection of intellectual property.” (53)

Indeed, Luther’s ideas about intellectual property may be of continuing relevance. One important debate about trademark contrasts those conceiving of a narrower informational function of trademark oriented to the interests of the consumer with those imagining a more expansive scope for trademark oriented to the interests of the seller. Luther’s decision to create “marks of quality” may represent evidence as to early practices and assumptions concerning intellectual property, evidence that appears to speak more clearly in favor of the narrower thesis about trademark.