Vatican Says There’s Little Substance to Copyright Squabble

VATICAN CITY — Shortly before Pope Benedict XVI published his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), the Vatican reasserted its legal ownership of works by the Pope, sparking a public dispute with an Italian publisher.

Since 1978, the Vatican’s publishing house, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, has had ownership of copyright in order to protect the speeches, homilies and documents of the Holy Father. But this has not always been clear to publishers, leaving papal works vulnerable to pirating, the breaking of embargoes, and other abuse.

So last May, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, signed a decree in which the rights to all Benedict’s works were turned over to the Vatican. At a December 2005 meeting at the Vatican, the decree was fully acknowledged by other contractual publishers of works authored by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

But the consequences led to one Italian publisher based in Milan being billed by the Vatican for $18,000 in royalties and legal costs for publishing a book containing text “from the pen and the voice of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.” The publisher was only given permission to print 30 lines and had instead printed 124 pages. The text also had been modified from the original, and was being sold for $12 a copy without consent of the Vatican and without giving the Vatican rightful compensation.

But news of the bill prompted the Italian newspaper La Stampa to suspect new and secret rules were now in place that was likely to prevent access to the Pope’s future writings. It also provoked criticism from some well-known authors.

“To use a euphemism, I am perplexed,” said Vittorio Messori, who has co-authored two books with Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. The consequences of the Vatican’s decision, Messori said, would be “to terrorize, in a certain sense, editors and journalists to ask in advance which words they can use.”

There was also criticism that publishers who produce books or tracts will be required to pay the Vatican between 3% and 5% of the cover price.

“The command of Christ is to go and proclaim the Word [of God],” said Messori. The idea of “placing a tax” on these words at such a rate, he said, was “absurd.”

Not Secret

The Vatican, however, insists it is operating within its rights. In a statement released Jan. 23, the Libreria Editrice Vaticana said there was “nothing secret” about the decree or the December meeting, both of which were mentioned in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano and the Vatican Press Office bulletin.

Details of how copyrights would be handled were also disclosed last October by the director of the Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Salesian Father Claudio Rossini, at a book fair in Frankfurt, Germany.

The Vatican also pointed out that for newspapers, there are very few restrictions.

“If the texts are being reproduced in a newspaper as reports, you do not have to pay fees,” said Father Edmondo Caruana, an official of the Libreria Editrice Vaticana. “But if you try to comment on a papal text in a book, of if you try to gain money from publishing an encyclical in a book or tract, then you must obtain permission beforehand and pay some royalties.”

Publishers, he added, must also “make sure the right text is reproduced, and that there are no modifications to it,” and the Libreria Editrice Vaticana is credited at the bottom of any excerpts or reprints of papal works in newspapers.

Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, the founder and director of St. Ignatius Press, which for many years published the works of Pope Benedict XVI when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, played down the dispute.

“In principle, the Libreria Editrice Vaticana maintains the rights to magisterial and other papal documents, so I don’t think that in itself it is a problem,” he said. “The question is what to do with that those texts that have been translated or embargoed. I think it’s reasonable that the Vatican be notified on these things. The Vatican is not being sinister or over-controlling.”

Father Fessio, who was at the December meeting, said Cardinal Sodano’s decree and the one signed by then-Cardinal Secretary of State Cardinal Jean Villot in 1978 were “essentially the same.” The Libreria Editrice Vaticana has, he said, “always been very gracious and supportive, and takes very seriously its mandate to protect the rights of the Holy Father.”

The contract signed between Ignatius Press and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger remains in effect, Father Fessio added. “The Vatican publishing house wanted to substitute the terms of the contract with new ones with the Libreria Editrice Vaticana in an attempt to put things in order, but all the terms will remain the same,” he said.

Access vs. Dissemination

But what is his response to the argument that the words of the Pope should always be free?

“There needs to be a distinction between access and dissemination, publishing and selling a text,” Father Fessio replied. “Also, lots of work has to be done in Rome — translations, editing, contracts — so it’s not unreasonable to ask for royalties for those documents being published for commercial use.”

Father Fessio said that “anyone can ask for the encyclical without paying anything” and noted that he freely obtained the Holy Father’s latest encyclical Deus Caritas Est off the Internet, where it is publicly available at the Vatican Web site (

“Some monitoring is all right, a little barrier that prevents abuse,” said Father Fessio, “but I don’t foresee any lack of access to papal documents.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.