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 teachings?

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.

Misplaced Fears

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 current controversy.

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 first encyclical, 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.

Uniform Policy

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 involved.

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 1978.

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.

Copyright laws 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.

Related Articles and Pages:

The Vocation of a Catholic Journalist: An Interview with Philip F. Lawler | Valerie Schmalz | July 7, 2005
IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page for Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI

Philip F. Lawler is editor of Catholic World News and former editor of Catholic World Report.

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 Catholic 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 children.

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