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Vatican decree brings papal words but with a price

The Vatican says that the copyright on the Pope's writings be respected and payment made.

india Updated: Feb 21, 2006 17:32 IST
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Royalties for Pope Benedict XVI's writings and speeches? The Italian publishing world is aghast. The demand by the Vatican to respect copyright on the pontiff's writings and pay for their use has triggered a hot debate: Should an institution which exists to spread the word of God be putting a price on papal writ?

Unthinkable, say some authors. Not so, counters the Vatican; the authors are being paid for their efforts, so why not the church? While the question is pondered, the new papacy is shaping up as a publisher's dream. Benedict's first encyclical, God is Love, is a best-seller.

Among those raising questions about copyright is Vittorio Messori, an Italian Catholic writer who co-authored Pope John Paul II's best-selling Crossing the Threshold of Hope, as well as a book with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict. Messori predicted in an interview with the Turin daily La Stampa that the campaign will "terrorize" publishers and writers. After Ratzinger was elected pope on April 19, 2005, the Holy See's No. 2 official, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, signed a decree assigning "in perpetuity and worldwide" the copyrights of all Benedict's works- including the hundreds he wrote before becoming pope- to the Vatican's publishing house, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, known as LEV.

La Stampa's Vatican correspondent, Marco Tosatti, and his Italian publisher, were hit with€15,000 (US$18,500) in copyright fees for Pope Ratzinger's dictionary, a slim volume of the pope's thoughts on abortion, freedom, conscience and other issues that was rushed out after his election.

Vatican lawyers also demanded 15 percent on sales plus€3,500 (US$4,200) in legal fees, Tosatti said.

In Lev's defense, its spokeswoman, Francesca Aida Bucciarelli, cites Tosatti's own preface to the book: "Everything you will find, from the end of this introduction on, belongs to the pen and voice of Joseph Ratzinger."

Tosatti said the demand for payment "seems to go against the very spirit of the church."

Its attitude, he said, seemed to be "We have to evangelize, spread the word." But then, "when someone spreads it, we make them pay."

Tosatti said he and his publisher, Baldini Castoldi Dalai, are not paying.

Andrea Tornielli of the Milan daily Il Giornale, whose book reprinted Pope John Paul II's will and testament, wrote that his publisher would pay a€5,000 (US$6,000) copyright fee rather than risk the book being confiscated.

Many news organizations, including The Associated Press, ran the text of the will which the Vatican gave to the media shortly after John Paul died April 2.

LEV says news organizations can quote from the pope's speeches, encyclicals and other writings without charge. They can also publish full texts for free provided they cite Vatican copyright, it says, but if a text is published separately, as Tornielli did in a book, payment is due.

LEV's Bucciarelli, in a telephone interview, said enforcing copyright helps ensure that the pope's writings are correctly reproduced.

"It is the pope who wanted his texts protected, who asked for this," said Bucciarelli.

Italian Catholic publishers are perplexed.

"Let's say a government makes a law. It's in the interest of the government to have the law published. And it's in its interest to have citizens read it, in an inexpensive edition," said the Rev. Alfio Filippi, director of Edizioni Dehoniane Bologna, a religious publishing house.

Bucciarelli concurred that publishers have reprinted encyclicals in the past, even though the Vatican issued a similar copyright decree a month after John Paul's 1978 election.

"But not only did they not pay for the rights, they were making money off it!" she said.

A leading U.S. intellectual property lawyer, Nicholas L. Coch, wondered about the logistics of policing the Vatican's policy. "It's one thing to say, "Yes, I want it (copyright enforcement), and it's another thing to go around the world going after it," Coch said by telephone from New York. Messori has gotten his cut from his pope books, and said that whatever royalties are collected, the pope will not get rich: He, like John Paul before him, gave his profits from the book he wrote with Messori to charity.