Newspapers around the world reprinted sections of Pope Benedict's first encyclical this week. No problem. But if you'd like to use a portion of the Pope's writing in a book you're working on - get ready to pay up. The Vatican publishing house will henceforth enforce copyright fees on the reprinting of its texts. Bob discusses the implications with John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Pope Benedict issued his first encyclical on Wednesday. If you read it in a newspaper, it's because the Vatican says the press can publish the Pope's words as news. However, as of this week, if you'd like to use a portion of the encyclical or any other papal text in a book you're working on, get ready to pay up, because quoting the Pope just got pricey. The Vatican Publishing House will henceforth impose copyright fees. To explain, we welcome John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. John, welcome to OTM.
JOHN ALLEN: Hi, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: This one took me by surprise. Charging to reprint the Pope's words – where did that come from?
JOHN ALLEN: In theory, this has always been the case. I mean, the Vatican has always asserted a copyright over papal documents. The difference is they're now actually starting to charge for these things, which they've never done in the past. What's happened is that a couple of fairly high-profile Italian journalists who did books either about the previous Pope or the current one, their publishing houses have received fairly hefty bills – in one case, 15,000 Euro, which, of course, would be almost 18,000 dollars, for using extensive portions of texts written by the Pope either before his election or now. This has caused tumult around the Vatican because, of course, in theory, the Vatican exists to get the Pope's message out, that is, to make sure that the word is spread throughout the world. It has caught some people off guard that they now want people to pay for that privilege.
BOB GARFIELD: And also, forgive me, but my understanding is that the Pope, according to Catholic orthodoxy, is essentially God's proxy on earth, in which case it sounds like God is charging royalties.
JOHN ALLEN: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Am I overstating that?
JOHN ALLEN: Yeah. Well, look, I mean, the reality is, from a strictly commercial point of view, there is nothing particularly strange here. I mean, even, you know, mid-list authors, such as myself, if people want to use extensive excerpts from my books, they've got to pay Random House for the privilege of doing so. I think the surprising thing is simply that this is not, you know, General Motors or this is not Bertelsmann, but this is the Holy See, and therefore a lot of people think that the kind of ordinary commercial rules shouldn't apply. My observation about the Catholic Church is that there are often kind of two impulses that just don't go well with one another. I mean, one is the evangelical impulse of wanting to give away everything because that's the nature of grace. The other is the realistic institutional logic. They, like everybody else, have to pay a light bill. And I think this is one of those cases where those two tendencies just sort of sit in an uneasy coexistence with one another.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, in addition to being the Pontiff, the Pope is also the Head of State of the Vatican, and if our Head of State, President Bush, delivered, say, the State of the Union speech, for example, it could be picked up by any author at any time in perpetuity and published without any copyright liability because he is, you know, essentially on the government payroll and whoever wrote the speech is on the government payroll, and it belongs to all of us. Why do the Pope's words not belong to all of us, or in any event, all Catholics?
JOHN ALLEN: Well, I think that's a very good question. And, you know, the practical reality is that this decree is going to have to be interpreted through the copyright laws of every nation where the Pope's words are heard, so I'm not exactly sure what the enforceability of this would be. I really think the primary sort of target, so to speak, are publishers in Italy. There is a whole cottage industry in this country of taking papal documents and repackaging them and selling them. If you walked into a bookstore in Rome, you would find five or six competing editions of the Pope's new encyclical. And in that kind of Wild West environment, I think the Vatican is attempting to assert some kind of control over who gets to piggyback, if you like, on the Pope's speech. On the other hand, you're quite right, that the Pope is, in a sense, a public figure and that his words are, in effect, directed to all Catholics everywhere. To some extent, I suppose all Catholics everywhere would feel like they have a right to hear what the Pope has to say. Probably also worth adding that, you know, the Vatican is not a multinational corporation. It has an annual budget of about 270 million dollars, and every year they struggle to make ends meet. There aren't too many opportunities for them to find additional revenue streams, and I think probably one of the bean counters in the Vatican figured this was one of the few opportunities they had.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, John. Many thanks.
JOHN ALLEN: Glad to help.
BOB GARFIELD: John Allen is the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.
WNYC 93.9 FM and AM 820 are New York's flagship public radio
stations, broadcasting the finest programs from NPR, PRI and American Public Media, as well as a wide range of award-winning local
programming. WNYC is a division of
New York Public Radio.