from the holy-shit dept
The Catholic Church has made some noises in recent years about attempts to modernize itself for the digital age. This modernization has taken different forms, from the Vatican attempting to create a special copyright over all things Pope some years back to selling indulgences in exchange for Pope-level Twitter followers. Somewhat strangely, the Church’s last Pope actually spoke out against overreaching intellectual property, which appears to be at odds with the current Vatican administration.
That’s because the Vatican recently came out and suggested that it will soon begin strictly policing the way the images of Pope Francis and certain Vatican iconography are used by third parties.
“The secretary of state will undertake systematic surveillance aimed at monitoring the way in which the image of the Holy Father and the emblems of the Holy See are used, intervening with opportune measures when necessary,” the Vatican said in a statement.
To back up this declaration, the Vatican has hired the global law firm Baker McKenzie to protect its intellectual property rights, the Italian daily Corriere della Sera reported. without citing the source of the information. Baker McKenzie declined to comment.
Now, I was raised Catholic, and this all feels a little off. To start, there are some pretty clear passages from the Old Testament about making a big thing out of symbols and idols. I’m not saying that claiming dominion over the images of the Pope and Vatican symbols violates those passages, but it does seem to me that this is something of an effort to plunge His Holiness into the murky depths of celebrity culture. After all, while the language bandied about deals with copyright, much of this seems to actually be more in line with trademark and publicity rights.
“The pope’s image rights are no different from those of any other famous celebrity and so it’s not surprising that the Vatican is giving notice that it will protect its (intellectual property) rights as necessary,” said Nick Kounoupias, the founder of an intellectual property consultancy in London.
And it’s perfectly fine if the Pope wants to remake himself in the image of Lindsay Lohan. I’m just not sure it squares with the humble texts upon which his empire is built.
But what seems completely strange to me is the fear of the internet that is animating this action.
“It’s not new that people were selling T-shirts of the pope, but (previously) those were probably little local vendors,” said Mark McKenna, an intellectual property expert at the Notre Dame Law School in Indiana.
What’s changed is the magnitude of what can be produced and how quickly it can be distributed through online platforms.
“In a world of Etsy, you are able to do it on a bigger scale,” he said.
Why? It seems to me that one of the chief aims of the church has always been proselytizing and clamping down on the method in which members of the Church, or even non-members, share the images and messages of the Pope, which seems counterproductive. I’m not saying I don’t see why the Vatican might bristle if those images are used to blaspheme rather than venerate the Pope or the Church. But chilling the spreading of the message to combat this seems like the wrong approach, one borrowed more from the entertainment industry than a soul-saving operation.
Or maybe it all comes down to money.
On the Vatican website, one can buy Francis medals, icons and rosary boxes. The Vatican museum boutiques offer silk ties and scarves and watches showing scenes from Michelangelo’s frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And that may be part of the Vatican’s motivation in safeguarding Francis’ face – and warning that they will challenge the copycats.
“It’s probably also the case that there is some genuine commercial motivation,” McKenna said. “They want to be sure they’re the only ones selling this stuff.”
Just like Jesus would do, right?