Culture At Large

Vatican decision sparks church copyright controversy

Andy Rau

Here's a slightly tangential follow-up to last week's discussion of ethics and plagiarism: citing concerns about unscrupulous publishers, the Vatican has placed all of its publications under a strict copyright of its own devising:

For the first time all papal documents, including encyclicals, will be governed by copyright invested in the official Vatican publishing house, the Libreria Editrice Vaticana....

The decision was denounced yesterday for treating the Pope’s words as “saleable merchandise” and endangering the Church’s mission to “spread the Christian message”.

Critics charge that the Vatican is trying to inappropriately profit from publications that should be free and open for the world, while the Vatican counters that it's just trying to stop publishers and journalists from misusing texts or publishing them before they're officially released.

It's not the religious controversy of the century, but it does illuminate an issue that affects the entire church, Catholic and Protestant: copyright. The mainstream debate over copyright has focused on music downloading and movie duplication, but obviously Christian publishing houses and music labels are, or soon will be, facing the same sorts of difficult questions. Here are some questions to think about:

* does Christianity's call to share the Gospel freely with everyone clash with the basic tenets of copyright law today? * in your experience, are Christians more likely to respect copyright law than non-Christians? Do (and should) Christians treat copyrighted material differently if it has "spiritual value"? * what kind of copyright system, if any, do you think the church should be using for its many varied publications? Does such a system already exist (think Creative Commons or various "copyleft" schemes), or would it need to be designed from scratch to fit with the church's mission?

Those are some big questions that we aren't going to answer quickly and easily in a single blog conversation. But copyright law affects the church today more than many people might realize. In her work as a church secretary, my wife deals regularly with interpreting copyrights and acquiring permission for music used in church services. My employer interacts with Bible publishers who are concerned about the ramifications of making copyrighted Bible translations available online. As the public debate about copyright continues, you can be sure it will spill over into the church as well.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Justice