Murphy's law rediscovered

January 5, 1996

An English professor has unearthed the manuscripts of the 18th-century creator of modern copyright law just as Britain was brought into line with France and Germany through a European Union directive this week.

Arthur Murphy was a well-known journalist, playwright and biographer of Henry Fielding, Samuel Johnson and David Garrick. Aged 35, he qualified as a barrister, and defended the underdogs in two cases against powerful London booksellers who claimed perpetual monopoly over such popular works as Shakespeare's plays and Milton's Paradise Lost after buying the copyright to them.

In 1946, his own biographer, Howard Hunter Dunbar, said Murphy had prepared a masterly treatment of the first case, Millar v. Taylor, but lamented: "What has become of it, I know not."

Don Nichol, a professor of English at Memorial University of Newfoundland, has now identified the manuscripts in Edinburgh University library.

"I first came across these papers 15 years ago," he said. "As they were so voluminous and difficult to make out, I put them aside and only returned to them recently. With a bit of help from the House of Lords Record Office, I was able to match up some of the points made in the manuscript with some of Murphy's arguments reported in Hansard."

Murphy lost the first case in 1769, when Lord Chief Justice William Murray ruled that booksellers who had bought the copyright to a work could retain perpetual monopoly.

But Murphy emerged victorious in Donaldson v. Beckett in 1774, when the Lord Chief Justice reversed his opinion in a House of Lords hearing. This case remains the foundation for all modern copyright law.

Dr Nichol, who delved into the problem of literary property in his book Pope's Literary Legacy and has published several articles on copyright, is completing a monograph entitled The Original Murphy's Law.

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