In Geneva, IP And The Catholic Church Are A Match Made In Heaven

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With his distinctive clerical garb, Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi stood out in a sea of coat and tie-wearing dignitaries at the recent General Assemblies of the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva. His presence is a glaring reminder to every stakeholder in the room that intellectual property, often associated with excessive and self-serving patent wars these days, has a place in the Catholic Church.

In an interview with Intellectual Property Watch at the sidelines of the assembly, Tomasi, the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, said the church finds “human value” in intellectual property and, as it protects and promotes innovation and creativity, is good for humanity.

“The goal of IP is to protect innovation and to find a way to support the people who are more creative. There is a human value in this. Everything that is important to the human family is a concern of people of religion, especially to the Vatican because the perspective with which we look at things is not so much in the immediate interest of religion as such, but what is good for the human family, for everybody,” he said.

Still, Tomasi asserts that the church believes intellectual property should have limitations, that in enforcing it there should be a balance between addressing the two necessities of monetizing creativity and creating social good.

“Private property is good, but it also has to be made available and functional for the rest of the human family. Knowledge, in a similar way, is a good thing for the individual so that the individual has the right to have some income out of his personal effort or talent. But at the same time, we need to keep the horizon wide so that everybody can benefit [from IP],” he said.

The Holy See, which is commonly referred to as the Vatican City, is the Episcopal jurisdiction of the Catholic Church in Rome and is headed by the Pope. It is home to a rich collection of copyrighted works, to include the voice and the writings of the Pope and religious books.

Among its creative institutions, the tiny city state has a film library, a publishing house and a radio station which together carve a wide and influential reach abroad, particularly in countries where the Roman Catholic faith is the dominant religion.

“In this tiny state, there are needs also of protecting the coat of arms of the Vatican, some radio programmes, the speeches of the Pope, the text or books that are officially published by the Holy See. And for all these activities, the law of copyright applies,” Tomasi said.

Particularly, according to its amended laws on copyright and neighbouring rights [text in Italian], the Holy See has the exclusive right to the image and the voice of the Pope used in works that are not religious, cultural and educational (Article 3). A 2011 amendment was made to protect the “honor, reputation, respect and prestige” of the Pope amid the onslaught of commercial merchandise bearing the Pope’s image.

Tomasi described the collection of copyrighted works of the Vatican as immense, but could not give figures on the estimated worth of the holdings of the church nor of their contribution to the income of the Vatican. The bulk of the yearly income of the Vatican comes from donations from around the world, collectively called the Peter’s Pence.

According to the official website of the Vatican City State, the Vatican Publishing House prints the acts and documents of the Pope and the Holy See, and is tasked to oversee the commercial distribution of the works. The Vatican Film Library contains “around 7,000 catalogued titles.”

The Vatican Radio, meanwhile, which has a status of an “independent administration” since 1995, “broadcasts to all five continents in 39 languages for approximately 438 hours a week — the combined duration of retransmitting the programs of the Vatican Radio by partner radio stations around the world. According to its website, the Vatican Radio has “concluded agreements for the broadcast of its programs with national public radios and some commercial radios,” but most of the broadcasters retransmitting the programs are Catholic or Christian radio stations.

More than the commercial interests in the collection of works, Tomasi noted that for the Catholic Church, IP protection is necessary to preserve the integrity of the message of the Church.

“What is produced in the Vatican becomes available to everybody, so there is the concern to protect the integrity of the message. We don’t want people to interfere with the words of the Pope or change the content of the book that deals with theology,” he said.

The Legal Office of the Governorate of the Vatican City is the agency tasked with overseeing the protection of the intellectual property rights of the Catholic Church. Similar to IP offices in other jurisdictions, its activities include registration of creative works, licensing and enforcement of IP rights.

Aside from the exclusive rights, mostly economic rights, that are provided by copyright, it also grants moral rights to authors, a right being observed in Europe.

Article 6bis(1) of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works guarantees that “the author shall have the right to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to, the said work, which would be prejudicial to his honor or reputation.”

At WIPO, Tomasi said the role of the Church is to “remind the member states that there are certain necessities in the human family that need attention,” in which IP can be used to address these needs.

Particularly, the Catholic Church has taken a strong position on the fast-tracking of a treaty to benefit the visually-impaired and those with print disabilities. “We would like to give them a chance to be more educated, to use these resources [copyrighted works] so that the spiritual and the intellectual growth of these people continue,” Tomasi said.

He elaborated this position of the Church in his intervention made before the 1-9 October WIPO Assembly. The link to a copy of his statement is here.

The Catholic Church, he said, is also pushing for WIPO to prioritise ensuring access to medicine, especially antiretroviral drugs, for poor people, especially those in developing countries.

“We don’t say that everything should be given for free, but the level of economic development of a country should be taken to account, so that an average person may not invest everything that he has – money that is necessary for food and for living – to buy medicine,” he added.

The Holy See has been a WIPO member since 1967 and is a World Trade Organization observer. It is a signatory to a number of treaties, to include the Berne Convention, the WIPO Convention and the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property.

Maricel Estavillo may be reached at

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