Monday, February 06, 2006

Reformation? What Reformation?

Since the advent of the Internet, panicked copyright lawyers have been busy trying to undo the Enlightenment. These clashes have drawn blood from all of my favorite 18th century institutions: chief among them libraries, encyclopedias, newspapers, and scientific associations.

Now it seems that copyright lawyers for the Holy See are going after the Reformation as well and attempting to control the channels through which authorized spiritual messages travel. This seems particularly ironic to me, given the Papal mission. If formulaic spiritual messages and specific religious instructions potentially save the vulnerable from sin and damnation, one would expect that the Catholic church would want them disseminated as widely as possible. Assuming these moral dangers are really eternal-life-threatening, wouldn't it be like putting a copyright on the precise directives that could prevent injury or disease? (Remember, I am fascinated by the rhetoric of information design and written warnings.)

A recent announcement now claims intellectual property ownership "over all the deeds and documents through which the Supreme Pontiff exercises his own Magisterium," including the popular encyclicals. According to a Times of London article, "Vatican 'cashes in' by putting price on Pope's copyright," the edict is retroactive and covers "not only the writings of the present pontiff -- as Pope and as cardinal -- but also those of his predecessors over the past 50 years. It therefore includes anything written by John Paul II, John Paul I, Paul VI and John XXIII."

Right now, the Vatican claims its main targets are Italian publishing houses who are making money off cheaply made reprints, but those without a profit motive aren't exempted from the new rules. This could potentially impact nonprofit websites used by scholars, as well as the faithful, such as Papal Encyclicals Online, which was commended by the American Library Association in 2005.

In my mind, the financial gains from copyright fees inevitably invite abuse. Didn't the church learn anything from the indulgence scandals that launched the Reformation? What if there is a poor but honest author who wants to use long excerpts? Will a wealthy entity with materialistic motives receive more privilege from the Church?

Last week, when I read about this new arrangement from Siva Vaidhyanathan on, I decided to examine the documents in question for myself. On the Vatican site, I learned about the idea of "moral copyright" from the decree regarding Copyright and the Vatican publishing house and the decree giving the Vatican publishing house rights to represent the Holy See. "Moral copyright"?

As I read more documents, I found myself asking more questions. Is it the Latin version that is subject to copyright or its translation into vernacular languagesor both? Can words from an infallable speaker transmitting the messages of God be subject to human jurisdiction? Does the current Pope function as the intellectual property heir of previous popes? Could this use of copyright morph into a means to control heretical interpretations, just as the bibliotheque nationale de France used copyright deposit before the Enlightenment to control the circulation of subversive ideas and limit those critical of royal authority? Could this copyright rule be expanded to priests and others who do "work for hire"?

As the ultimate form of public rhetoric, I've been interested in Vatican-related websites for a while. During the last millennium, for example, I discovered Christus Rex which publishes web traffic for the Vatican collections. (At the time, icons were most popular.)

Of course, because the Vatican has become famously protective of the intellectual property value of its art collections, the copyright policy on the Pope's writings may simply be for them a next logical step in litigious line-drawing.

I also have visited the Libreria Editrice Vaticana, where the Version Flash showed a white dove transforming into a book upon the page. Unfortunately, there seems to be a persistent problem with their Apache server, so the site has obvious technical flaws. It's worth noting that the Vatican publishing house was established in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V, ironically as part of the Church's adaptation to biblio-centric Reformation pressures.

While you are visiting the interactive wonders of the main Vatican website, you can also take a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel. You might also want to visit the tantalizingly-named Vatican Secret Archives, where you may be disappointed by what you find. (I was expecting something more like the FBI's site for the Freedom of Information Act.)

It is interesting to think about this story in relation to this Winter's other story about religion and replication below.

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Blogger Julia Lupton said...

The new policy must have been timed to coincide with the publication of the new Pope' First Encyclical, on "love" as a universal force for social good that transcends confessional bounds. Anyone see a contradiction?

6:19 AM  

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