Jul 072013

On Friday when Lumen Fidei was released it was nice to see early on that morning that Brandon Vogt had converted that encyclical for use in multiple e-readers along with PDF. I was just about to do the same thing myself.

In the last couple hours, I’ve received a litany of emails from both the USCCB and the Vatican accusing me of “[violating] both civil and moral law” and “stealing from the pope” (actual words used) by making the encyclical available in other formats. They’ve ordered me to remove the documents with full knowledge that this would prevent hundreds of people from reading it who otherwise wouldn’t read the encyclical online or in print.

In my view, this is tragic and unjust. It’s valuing profit over catechesis, and I have to believe Pope Francis (and Pope Benedict) would be extremely perturbed. Their goal and the goal of the Church is to evangelize—to spread the message of Jesus Christ, especially through papal encyclicals—not to make a dime off each copy printed.

This annoys me on so many levels.

First my vanity took a bit of a hit (although being such a large target it is easily hit). I have been converting Vatican documents for quite awhile plus I put out first “The Weekly Benedict” and now “The Weekly Francis.” I have never had a complaint from any official sources.

The tone of the reaction to Brandon Vogt reminds me of St. Teresa’s humorous lament to God “If this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few!” To accuse him a stealing is just so unjust.

The Vatican and other Church structures are usually rather slow to adapt to a changing situation. So-called new media and the internet requires a revisit of the paradigms of the past. I can certainly understand a protection of copyright and in a world where this was just about printed materials it made sense. There is a need to some extent to control documents to ensure that a document printed contained the original source with no alterations.

When it comes to making documents available, the Vatican does a fairly good job in that they are made available to read on their site at no cost. In a world where phones, tablets, and dedicated electronic text readers there is a serious downside to reading their documents on these devices, especially longer documents.

Unfortunately the Vatican instead of using CSS to format their documents they use Table formatting. Putting all the text in a single row/column at a specified width. Thus the text does not flow correctly at smaller screen resolutions. The Vatican in the case of this new encyclical also offered a PDF version, which is also very difficult to read on any mobile device smaller than a 10″ tablet.

The solution of course is to offer the document in a known e-book format such as ePub which can be read on a multitude of devices along with a mobi (Kindle) version. Thus making documents available to a large segment in a format where chances are good they will actually read it. These ebook version allow text to flow correctly regardless of screen size.

So Brandon Vogt steps in to fill an obvious hole and gets slapped down and accused of stealing. Somehow I get the feeling that if Pope Francis was told about this specific case he would not concur and in fact this would only reenforce his attitude towards the Curia and other forms of Church bureaucracies.

The [New Liturgical Movement] blog has been talking about problems with the Church’s heavy-handed use of copyright for years in regards to hymns and they discuss this specific case here.

The Church has made some movements in reaching out towards some bloggers and trying to put the so-called “new media” to use. It would be nice if the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization looked at this situation specifically. What I think needs to happen is that the Vatican should use some form of a Creative Commons license. Certainly a situation where Catholics in good faith and at no cost are helping the distribute information and documents should be encouraged. Trying to control this has no real upside and mostly downside.

The other thing I would like to see happen is for the Vatican to release these documents in e-book formats themselves. Really what I would like to see is more cooperation in regards to these documents with the laity. Certainly those in charge of making these documents available have enough work to do, but I am guessing there are a lot of Catholics who would love to be able to help out in converting documents to e-book versions. They definitely need some help with quality control since the English version had some formatting problems with the footnotes. In fact it would be nice to have some contact information to be able to point out problems or for example to be able to ask why the General Audience of 5 June 2013 still has not been translated?

I consider the way Brandon Vogt was treated to be rather Pharisaic. Although I totally agree with how he responded in taking down the content. I am thinking about my own situation with The Weekly Francis ebook. If I was told by the Vatican to cease and desist I would since if you are only obedient when you want to you are not obedient at all. Maybe I have been going too much with the “It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”

Still something like The Weekly Francis e-book is a project that the Vatican should be doing in multiple languages. It certainly takes me considerable time each week to track recently translated documents, provide indexes, and collate into the various e-book formats. If I had to stop it would certainly free up my time, but I do this because I know so many people are thus enabled to read the words of the Holy Father without having to spend a good deal of time in document tracking and subsequent conversion.

It will be interesting to see the fallout over this and if common sense will prevail in the end.

Note: The blog title I used is taken from the “New Litugical Movement” posts on the same subject. It expresses the subject better than anything I could come up with.

  14 Responses to “Evangelization vs. Copyright”

  1. The Vatican would hold the copyright, not the USCCB, so the latter has no standing to in that arena. Id I were Mr. Vogt, I would point this out to them and then engage them on the real moral issue involved — evangelization — much as you have done here.

    If the Vatican requests that he cease and desist on copyright grounds, it is their legal right. Again, if it were me, I would take the requested action and then respond: apologizing, detailing the action taken, and then pointing out the true moral issue as above. Hopefully he will get a positive response on the last point. If not, tweeting about the problem to @Pontifex can’t hurt

  2. I was also thinking that a Creative Commons license would be the best course of action for the Vatican to make clear its intent with these freely distributed documents. However, I’m not sure there is an appropriate license that would do the trick. I would think that Attribution – Non Commercial – No Derivatives would be ideal, except that an e-Book might be construed as a derivative work, and not an exact copy of the original. But that license would prevent anyone from making change to the content.

    Something needs to happen with this. The response seems rather heavy handed to me. The clergy is always talking about how the laity needs to step up and do more, but when it actually happens, as in this case, the response is something like, “that’s not what we meant.”

  3. At least in the US, there is no case law that says that a Creative Commons license is enforceable. That doesn’t mean it isn’t, but it doesn’t mean it is. So the Church could risk losing the copyrights on those works if future case law went against them.

    That said, they should definitely make it easier to obtain permission to reprint material. The “Read the Catechism in a Year” project and “Verbum Domini” podcast had similar problems.

  4. I agree with you brother. I left similar comments on Bradon’s Facebook status when he posted this today. I think it is quite sad and a bit frustrating.

  5. Thanks for the great analysis, Jeff. I agree across the board. I’m writing a longer manifesto which I hope to post in a couple days. I’ll be sure to send it to you.

    This is actually only the latest incident in a much bigger Vatican/USCCB problem. Over the past year, several podcasting and blogging friends have been similarly shut down. The worst examples was the Flocknote Catechism which had 110,000 subscribers (!!) before the USCCB sent a cease and desist letter to Matt Warner and threatened him with legal action.

    This silliness needs to stop. I agree with Bill that the best solution is probably a Creative Commons-No Derivatives license. Unlike Bill, however, I’d go a step further and remove the commercial constraint. I don’t see any reason why publishers like Ignatius and Our Sunday Visitor should be forced to pay thousands of dollars, on top of their normal publishing costs, to print the Bible, Catechism, and Church documents. All that does is discourage their printing *or* needlessly jack the prices up.

    PS. I was thinking about mentioning your weekly eBook project (which I love) but I didn’t want to “out” you to the Vatican or USCCB. Let me know what you think (by email, preferably.) Thanks!

  6. The proper response to take-down demands is disobedience, along with a (respectful) letter asking basically, “What have YOU guys been doing for the New Evangelisation lately”?
    The USCCB are a bunch of copyright trolls

    It is a scandal that ALL the Church’s printed works are locked up; missals, hymnals, Bibles, &c. We have been behind the curve with info-tech since the printing press while our protestant brethren are all over it.

    Jeff, if you are forced to shut down the Weekly Benedict at least give sources of His Holiness’s sermons &c so we can convert them w/ Calibre.

  7. Like commenter Bill Genereux I, too, am annoyed but not with the Vatican (at least, not for their response to Brandon which is legally required of them under pain of forfeiture of the copyright). Certainly I could be appropriately annoyed that the Vatican is so uninformed about available technical options that it has not yet utilized formatting solutions which would remove the need for Brandon and Jeffrey to perform the apostolates they’ve felt called to provide.

    However, I am mostly annoyed that the Catholic blogosphere – mostly – is woefully ignorant of copyright law, which is most salient here. I say mostly because one – Dawn Eden – has posted a thorough explanation of the factors involved. I had known most of them from a media law class I took some years back but she offers the full menu of applicable elements at “Were the Vatican & USCCB ‘unjust’ to order a Catholic blogger to take down reformatted versions of Francis’s encyclical?” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/feastofeden/2013/07/were-the-vatican-and-usccb-unjust-to-order-a-catholic-blogger-to-take-down-reformatted-versions-of-franciss-encyclical/).

    I suggest all of you head over there and read the whole post and then wipe the egg off your faces.

    Here’s the money quote:

    A copyright owner’s failure to defend the right to his intellectual property can result in the loss of that property. In the words of Indiana University School of Law professor Kenneth D. Crews (whom I hope will accept this quotation as “fair use”), “American copyright law…includes an amorphous concept of ’abandonment,’ whereby a copyright owner might be deemed to have lost legal rights by virtue of not protecting them or asserting them against infringers.”

    Such loss isn’t automatic but “could” occur when the copyright holder attempts legal action against an
    egregious violator who points to earlier failure to protect against infringers. I’m sure Brandon would not wish to be the occasion when the Vatican failed to do so, resulting in loss of copyright later.

    Frankly, it’s embarrassing to see so many clueless Catholic bloggers and equally ignorant commenters not only wax eloquent on how so very wrong (aka immoral) is the Vatican on this one but elaborate in detail and at great length. Truth is, you simply don’t know what you’re talking about, which has potential ramifications for protecting your own copyright/trademark, should you go that route one day.

    Rather than issuing statements of righteous outrage from puffed up chests, Catholic bloggers & commenters need to take a media law course or otherwise catch up to the reality that traditional publishers and other copyright and trademark holders have long understood.

    For example, in Baltimore years ago Sony Corp. issued a cease and desist letter to the operator of a Filipino restaurant because it bore the lifetime nickname of the owner, a woman named – you guessed it – Sony. Of course, it is expected everyday folks unaware of this reality would become outraged but the reason the corporate Sony shut down the use of the name by Sony’s Restaurant was that failure to do so could result in loss of their trademark. Do you think anyone might have a financial motive to infringe on that copyright? Sony understood: better protect it of lose it.

    So, folks, to avoid future embarrassment from caterwauling without foundation on this matter, most of the Catholic blogosphere needs to

    1) apologize BIG TIME to the Vatican and withdraw suggestions/charges of inappropriate profit or control motives, and

    2) become educated and well-versed with what’s up with copyright & trademark law.

    3) form an ad hoc group of genuine experts to offer continuing service to the Church by advising the Vatican & the USCCB on utilizing the alternative formats better suited to the current technological age.

    Frankly, until then a lot of folks with well-earned cred are going to look pretty much like uninformed amateurs.

    Brandon, why don’t you steal a march on the rest of the Catholic blogosphere by researching this and then offering an online course on the subject of copyright/trademark protection so Catholics with an interest in protecting their work swill be strategically informed. Turn this episode into a learning experience.

    • Copyright and trademark are two different forms of intellectual property. To conflate the two is to make a mistake. The notion of copyright abandonment is a red herring here. Yes, it is theoretically possible for a copyright to be abandoned. But this is not a situation where the only choice is a claim of infringement or acceptance of infringement. The copyright holder could negotiate a license to cover the usage. This in fact seems like one of those circumstances where the licensee and licensor ought to be motivated to negotiate a very friendly license that works for both. Unfortunately, our history has been to think of copyright as a single bundle of rights that can be granted or not granted, rather than take a more sophisticated view that the copyright holder has much freedom on what he grants under his copyrights. We now have a decade plus of work by Harvard and the Creative Commons that has demonstrated these alternative paths can flourish. Their enforceability is no more in doubt than any other copyright license. The reality is that, unless this is really about earning royalties from the licensing of the copyrights, the Church has a lot of flexibility here. It may be just time for those who know better to speak up and inform our bishops of the options they really have at their disposal.

  8. First let me say that this not my area of expertise, copyrights nor new media.

    I’m puzzled….(nothing new)

    Does the USCCB actually have any rights over the material? On the juridical level they are simply a collegial body, correct? They have no actual authority over…..anything?

  9. Sorry, I have to agree with the Bishops. Why not just direct readers to the Vatican website? Using this material, no matter how much you improve it, clearly serves to promote readership of your website and is of value to you, while detracting from driving readers to the Vatican website. You are using Vatican documents to benefit your website. That’s not moral no matter how you spin it!

  10. It’s 2013. Vast areas of the Vatican finally woke up from the 70s last week and realized that the Internet exists. You’re next.

  11. […] churches to protect turf and revenue stream deriving from access to sacred documents.  Sinister villain Matthew Warner, along with various other Catholic podcasters and bloggers, *dares* to use Ch…. Warner’s Flocknote Catechism had 110,000 subscribers who actually thought the Church’s […]

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