Even the Pope has Rights: The Vatican and Copyright Privileges | Philip F. Lawler
Even the Pope has Rights: The Vatican and Copyright Privileges | Philip F. Lawler
When the Vatican
asserted copyright over Pope Benedict's writings, many mistakenly thought the
Church was putting a price on the Pope's words.
In January, when the Vatican
asserted its legal ownership of copyright privileges for the works of Pope
Benedict XVI, the reaction from the mass media was swift and furious. Why would
the Church restrict public access to the Pope's public statements, journalists
asked. How could the Vatican be so crass as to put a price on the Church's
Those might have been
legitimate questions, except for two simple facts: Church officials were not restricting access to the Pope's statements, and
journalists were not being asked
to pay for the privilege of quoting the Pope's public statements. The
thundering outrage of editorial writers was based on a wholly inaccurate
understanding of that the Vatican was trying to do.
To this day, an internet
search using the words Pope" and "copyright" will bring up
dozens of stories claiming that the Vatican is trying to "cash in" on
the work of the Pope, by charging fees for anyone who quotes him. Yet many of
the same media outlets that have sputtered in indignation over the new policy
are also continuing to carry lengthy quotations from papal speeches, and they
are not receiving any dunning notices from Rome.
There was one case, early
this year, in which an Italian publisher did receive a hefty bill for
appropriating Pope Benedict's words. That was the case that precipitated the
The fireworks began with a
January 21 editorial in the Italian daily La Stampa, charging that the Vatican publishing house, Libreria
Editrice Vaticana (LEV), was seeking to squeeze a profit out of journalists by
limiting access to the Pope's statements. The Italian paper charged that the
Vatican wanted to "terrorize" editors and publishers with the threat
of charging heavy fees for use of the Pope's written work.
LEV shot back with a public
statement released on January 23, saying that the Vatican was not limiting
access, but merely protecting against "piracy" of papal statements.
The Vatican publisher stressed that Italian publishers were well aware of the
rules governing reproduction of papal statements, and that those rules have
been essentially unchanged since 1978.
This dispute arose at a time
when Vatican-watchers were eagerly awaiting publication of Pope Benedict's
Deus Caritas Est.
The Italian journal Famiglia Cristiana had scored a major coup by arranging for publication of the full text
of Deus Caritas Est in the
magazine; disappointed editors at rival publications muttered that they would
be prevented even from quoting the text. There were bitter accusations that the
Vatican was hoping to deter premature leaks of the encyclical by threatening to
take action for infringement of copyright.
When Deus Caritas Est did finally appear, reporters covered the event just
as they had covered the release of other encyclicals by past Pontiffs. The
document was liberally quoted in newspaper and magazine accounts. Editors
showed no fear of reproducing sections from the Pope's text; in fact, Vatican
officials actively encouraged them to do so.
What had become of the effort by the Vatican to
"terrorize" journalists? The truth is that the Vatican had no quarrel
with legitimate publishers. But La
Stampa had its own axe to grind.
Limits On Exploitation
In January a Vatican
correspondent for La Stampa, Marco
Tosatti, had received a bill from LEV, demanding payment of 15,000 pounds (at the
time, about $18,400) for the use of material by Pope Benedict. Not
coincidentally, it was Tosatti who led the editorial charge when La Stampa
criticized the Vatican for asserting control of the
Pope's intellectual-property rights.
But Tosatti's use of Pope
Benedict's written work was not a matter of a simple quotation or two. The
Italian journalist had published a book entitled The Dictionary of Pope
Ratzinger, composed almost entirely
of the Pope's spoken and written words. In his preface to the book, Tosatti had
assured readers: "Everything you will find here, beyond this introduction,
comes from the pen or the voice of Joseph Ratzinger." In short, Tossati
had tried to do precisely what he now charged Vatican officials with doing:
make a profit by publishing the Pope's work.
In asserting its copyright
privileges in this case, LEV explained, it was seeking to protect the Pope's
interest, in the same way that any publisher protects its authors. Journalists
may still quote the Pope freely, if their objective is to inform readers about
what the Pontiff has said. But if their goal is to make a profit from the
Pope's work, then the Pope is entitled to a share.
Questions about copyright
privileges are particularly important in the case of Pope Benedict, whose work
was widely published before his election to the papacy. Last May 31, Cardinal
Angelo Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State, announced that Pope Benedict had
turned over all of his rights as author to Libreria Editrice Vaticana, which
would henceforth control the copyright to all future works by the Pontiff. The
Vatican publisher also assumed control of the copyright for all works completed
by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger prior to his election, except insofar as existing
contracts with other publishers would remain in force.
In December, LEV called a
meeting in Rome for the publishers who had produced Cardinal Ratzinger's books
in different countries around the world. The purpose of the meeting was to
establish clear policies regarding the use of the Pope's work. Because the new
Pontiff had entered into a variety of different agreements, reflecting the
peculiarities of copyright law and publishing standards in different countries,
LEV sought also to simplify things, replacing this welter of old agreements
with a new uniform agreement.
Ignatius Press, which
publishes Catholic World Report,
had also served for some years as the English-language publisher of Cardinal
Ratzinger's works. So Ignatius officials were actively involved in the
discussions with the Vatican publisher. Mark Brumley, the president of Ignatius
Press, recalled that LEV made no effort to restrict the Pope's other
publishers. On the contrary, he said, LEV was "very helpful, very
accommodating" in recognizing the legal rights of the other parties
After that meeting, LEV
explained its new policies to the public, making a special effort to notify
reporters and editors in Rome. Although the policies regarding the use of the
Pope's words are now more detailed, they are substantially unchanged since
Journalists are free to quote
the Pope's words in newspapers and magazines at no charge. The Vatican asks that
extended quotations in print publications be accompanied by acknowledgment of
the LEV copyright, and internet sites are asked to link to the text on the
Vatican web site rather than run the full text on their own site. In practice,
many publications and web sites do not comply with these conditions; LEV has
shown no particular interest in enforcing them. Nevertheless, LEV requests
that all editors and web sites observe its policies.
The Pope is a universal
teacher, and when he speaks or writes, his aides at the Vatican hope that his
message will go out to the widest possible audience. The Vatican's policies are
designed not to restrict public access to the Pope's teachings, but to ensure
that the teachings are conveyed fully and accurately.
are enacted to protect authors from potential exploitation. The Vatican argues,
not unreasonably, that even the Pope deserves that protection.
This article originally appeared in the May 2006 issue of
Catholic World Report.
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IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page
for Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Philip F. Lawler is editor of Catholic World
News and former editor of Catholic
Born and raised in the Boston area, he attended Harvard College, graduating
with honors in Government in 1972. He did graduate work in political philosophy
at the University of Chicago before entering a career in journalism.
Lawler has been active in politics as well as journalism. He has been Director
of Studies for the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think-tank based
in Washington), a member of two presidential inaugural committees, and a
candidate for the U.S. Senate.
As a journalist, Lawler has acted as editor of Crisis magazine. In
1986 he became the first layman to edit The Pilot, the Boston archdiocesan
newspaper. From 1993 to 2005, Lawler was the editor of
World Report, an international monthly news magazine. And in 1996,
recognizing the power of the internet, he founded Catholic
World News, the first online Catholic news service.
Lawler is the author of five books on political and religious topics. His
essays, book reviews, and editorial columns have appeared in over one hundred
newspapers around the United States and abroad, including the Wall Street
Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe.
He lives in central Massachusetts with his wife Leila and their seven
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