The History and Future of the Book

The "Age of Enlightenment": on Dictionaries and theft (or, where would we be without piracy?)

The modern dictionary provides an interesting study in literary theft and copyright, the stabilizing of our own language thanks to indiscriminate copying of texts, and the rather interesting notion that instructions for language use can be copyrighted at all.

Let's take, for instance, the word "theft." How is it defined in the two dominant dictionaries of our day? (please note the legal notices for both, claiming ownership of said definitions)


Oxford English Dictionary

Oxford English Dictionary (Copyright © Oxford University Press 2006; read their legal notice)

Here's the definition:

The action of a thief; the felonious taking away of the personal goods of another; larceny.


Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Merriam-Webster Dictionary (© 2005-2006 Merriam-Webster, Incorporated; read their legal notice)

Here's the defitionion:

1a: the act of stealing; specifically: the felonious taking and removing of personal property with intent to deprive the rightful owner of it b: an unlawful taking (as by embezzlement or burglary) of property

2 obsolete: something stolen


On the copyright claims in these legal notices

The fact that no one ever seems to question those legal notices for such publishers underscores our willing acceptance of the idea that copyright is a good and necessary legal protection for both authors and publishers: the authors have legal protection of the fruits of their hard mental labour and original creations, and the publishing companies have legal protection for the considerable investments involved in producing the material. This seems fair and legitimate, right?

However, Oxford and Merriam-Webster are forbidding you to systematically copy, display online or re-publish, or sell definitions that are in many cases the fruits of a long and profitable use of stolen/shared work. Let's compare these 20th-century definitions to a few from dictionaries produced in the 17th and 18th centuries:


Nomo-lexikon, A Law-dictionary Interpreting Such Difficult and Obscure Words and Terms as are Found Either in our Common or Statute, Ancient or Modern Lawes

by Thomas Blount (1670)

an unlawful Felonious taking away another mans moveable and personable Goods against the owners will, with an intent to Steal them. ....  See Larceny and Felony.

Cyclopædia: or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences

Ephraim Chambers (London, 1728)

in Law, an an unlawful, felonious taking away another man’s moveable and personal Goods, against the Owner’s Will, with an intent to steal them. See Larceny.

A Compleat English Dictionary. Containing the True Meaning of All Words in the English Language...

by Benjamin Norton Defoe ( Westminster, 1735)

the Act of stealing, Robbery

A Dictionary of the English Language: in Which the Words are Deduced from their Originals, Explained in their Different Meanings...

by Samuel Johnson (London, 1756)

1. The act of stealing.

2. The thing stolen.

A New Complete English Dictionary, Peculiarly Adapted to the Instruction and Improvement of Those Who Have Not Had the Benefit of a Learned or ...

by John Marchant (London, 1760)

in Law, is an unlawful and felonious taking away another man’s property, with an intent to steal it.

The Royal English Dictionary; or, a Treasury of the English Language. ... To Which is Prefixed, a Comprehensive Grammar of the English Tongue

by Daniel Fenning (London, 1761)

the act of feloniously and unlawfully taking away another person’s goods: stealing.

A Complete English Dictionary: Containing an Explanation of All the Words Made Use of in The Common Occurrences of Life, or in the Several Arts ...

by Francis Allen (London, 1765)

the act of stealing.

A Complete and Universal English Dictionary on a New Plan

by James Barclay, Curate of Edmonton (London, 1782)

the act of feloniously and un-lawfully taking away another person’s goods; stealing; the thing stolen.

The New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language...

by John Ash (London, 1775)

The act of stealing, the thing stolen.