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Copyright run amuck

It was in the early 1980s that a visitor from New Zealand to the Hansard office in the Canadian House of Commons was absolutely flabbergasted to see two full pages in the Montreal Gazette devoted to court prosecutions of merchants, restaurateurs, and owners of other business establishments for using English signs on their premises.

"It's illegal to use English in Canada!"

She couldn't quite take it in.

Twenty years on, the memory of her astonishment was revived when an official of the French language enforcement authority in the Province of Québec informed an equally astounded resident of the province that he was breaking its language laws by displaying a sign simply showing a large question mark. The "?", he claimed, had been copyrighted by his office.

As one having an inbred association with the law governing copyright, the incident triggered another memory of what was possibly the first decided case of copyright in the western world.

In fact it was a fellow Donegal man, Colmcille by name, who was sued by a chap named Finnian, who claimed he had infringed copyright by making a copy of a book belonging to Finnian, without permission.

There was hell to pay. Sides were taken. Feelings ran high.

"To every cow its calf; to every book its copy" was the historic judgment handed down, which fundamental reasoning underlies all copyright law to this day.

Which brings the issue up to date. Who owns the copyright to the punctuation mark "?" ?

Is it Pontius Pilate who asked that most famous question: "What is truth?"

Is it the Redeemer who asked: "Who do you say I am?"

Happily neither resided in the Province of Québec, whose reputation in matters linguistic has been put into question ever since it passed laws governing the language that it is permissible to use on public signs and public documents.

How does one translate an English "?" question mark into a French "?" question mark ?

Québec law, even where it permits the use of English on signs, stipulates that the size of the English letters must be smaller than that of the French text.

Perhaps a smaller size "?" could be used to denote an English question, and a larger size "?" to denote a French question.

The whole affair is questionable.

By the by, Colmcille and Finnian both went on to become saints.

That isn't likely to happen in the present case.

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