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A Non-Material form of Copyright: The Strange History of Lecturer’s Copyright
Australian Journal of Legal History (1999)
  • Alex Steel, University of New South Wales
This article traces the history of a specific copyright in the spoken word in private lectures, a copyright that did not require the words to be reduced to material form in order to gain protection. In the early to mid 1800’s much money could be made from the giving of lectures, and private lecturers were searching for ways to protect their livelihood. The first case to successfully prevent the unauthorised reprinting of lectures was Abernethy v Hutchinson (1825); generally considered to be the case which formed the basis for the action for breach of confidence. This was a case about the prevention of the republication of medical lectures in the then radical journal, the Lancet. The reported original decision was to grant an injunction on the basis of an “implied contract”, but this was later dissolved on the basis that Abernethy was a public, not a private lecturer. Ten years later, the Lectures Copyright Act 1835 was enacted to provide general statutory protection to lecturers. However in the passage of the Bill through the Parliament, the publisher of the Lancet succeeded in having the Act restricted to private lecturers. The article traces the strange history behind this campaign by the Lancet, and the later interpretation of both the Act and the principle in Abernethy v Hutchinson in Nichols v Pitman and Caird v Sime. The article suggests that these decisions misconstrued both the decision in Abernethy and the provisions of the Lectures Copyright Act. All statutory protection of lectures ceased with the introduction of the Berne Convention copyright Acts, but the common law protection of spoken private lectures may still exist.
  • copyright,
  • non-material,
  • lectures,
  • Abernethy v Hutchinson,
  • breach of confidence,
  • implied contract,
  • Lectures Copyright Act,
  • private lectures
Publication Date
Citation Information
Alex Steel. "A Non-Material form of Copyright: The Strange History of Lecturer’s Copyright" (1999) 4 Australian Journal of Legal History 185. Available at: