Book review: Copyrighting God

The rise and growth of artificial intelligence has revived discussions on copyright in content produced by non-humans. Andrew Ventimiglia, author of Copyrighting God, reminds us that non-human creations, such as those attributed to supernatural spirits, have held a long-standing place in the landscape of copyright (here). Going further, the author argues that claims to copyright in religious texts have actively shaped American copyright law, not least because of the Church of Scientology’s courtroom activism. Read on for more.

As hinted by its snappy title, the book focuses on a specific type of non-human creation: texts claimed to have been transmitted to humans by God or other transcendent beings. Ventimiglia tracks the copyright strategy of four American religious organisations: the Urantia Foundation, the Christian Science Church, the Worldwide Church of God and the Church of Scientology.

Copyrighting God…How?

How do you claim that a text was not written by you or any other human being, and yet assert copyright protection for it? In the case of godly creations, this book argues that it is perfectly possible. Ventimiglia points to two overarching factors that have worked to the benefit of copyright claimants in such circumstances: (a) the claimants have cleverly exploited the concepts of creation and inspiration to their advantage; and (b) the reluctance of judges to let a copyright infringement proceeding get bogged down in esoteric debates about divine authorship.

Saint Cleo of Los Gatos, by Rachel Burt
Copyrighting God…Why?

Copyright protection has many appealing features to offer religious organisations. First, copyright can be a tool for “stewardship” and “ethics of care” over the texts by giving organisations a legal right to decide when, how and by whom their sacred writings are shared or taught. Second, copyright is also a tool that can assist the growth of religious organisations by enabling them to structure collaborations or partnerships with followers through copyright licensing agreements or franchises. Last but lost least, copyright has been employed as a means to maintain secrecy and prevent scrutiny by outsiders.

For example, the Church of Scientology mobilized almost every possible basis for a claim of copyright infringement (and breach of trade secrets) to censor critics of its practices (although not always successfully). In the 1990s, the Church of Scientology’s generated a string of cases in the United States, colloquially known as “Scientology versus the Internet” (referring to: Religious Technology Center v Netcom (1995); Religious Technology Center v F.A.C.T.Net Inc (1995); Religious Technonlogy Center v Lerma (1995)).

To understand the significance of these cases, we must go back to an earlier dispute between the Church of Scientology and a former member -- Steven Fishman, which took place between 1991 and 1994 (see here). The Church asked Fishman to return confidential documents describing their practices and teachings, which the Church argued were confidential trade secrets.

Fishman responded by submitting (excessively?) long motions, featuring the contentious documents,  to have them become part of the public record. The Church then proceeded to file a motion that these records be sealed, “while loyal Scientologists made efforts to repeatedly check out the court files thereby denying anyone else from getting access to them” (p. 195). Despite the Church’s zealous efforts to maintain secrecy, the documents found their way onto the world-wide-web, leading Scientologists to take issues with internet service providers for making the infringing material available to all.

Ventimiglia describes the Church of Scientology as a precursor in developing arguments to hold internet service providers and publishers liable for publishing infringing content, such as A&M Records v Naptser (2001 and 2002) and MGM v Grokster (2004, 2005 and 2006).

Ventimiglia writes

The most important Scientology cases provided the first real tests for copyright protection in emerging digital spaces before Internet law had cohered as a subfield, and before the Digital Millennium Copyright Act codified the logic and operation of copyright online. In fact, it would not be a stretch to consider the Scientology cases as setting the framework for and necessitating the development of the Copyright Act’s Safe Harbor provisions for Internet service providers (p. 183, references omitted)

The book chapter by chapter

The book consists of five chapters and is divided into two parts (excluding the introduction and conclusion). The structure of the book is built around case studies to illustrate the key tensions at play between copyright law and religion. These case studies illustrate how specific legal doctrines of intellectual property were mobilized by religious organisation to exert control over their sacred texts via, e.g., the definition of authorship, vicarious and contributory liability for copyright infringement, fair use in unpublished texts and trade secrets.

Chapters 1 and 2 discuss the copyright claims made by the Urantia Foundation to the Urantia Book. Chapter 3 describes the copyright activism of Mary Baker Eddy in the service of the Christian Science Church. Eddy’s claim to intellectual property rights focused on the text titled Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Chapter 4 follows the dispute that arose between the Worldwide Church of God and its splinter church, the Philadelphia Church of God, over the text Mystery of the Ages. Chapter 5 lays out the copyright strategy implemented by the Church of Scientology.

This book will be of interest to anyone interested in the intersection between copyright and religious texts, and in the concept of authorship more generally. The clarity of writing makes technical and contextual content on the law and religion accessible to lawyers and non-lawyers alike (and to experts and non-experts in American theology alike). Whilst the focus of the book is on American jurisprudence, Ventimiglia’s analysis will be relevant to other jurisdictions because it focuses on concepts central to most systems of copyright, such as Canada, Australia, or the United Kingdom.

The book does not seek to offer ways in which copyright could better handle the protection of texts inspired by supernatural forces. Rather, its aim is to shed light on the nuanced ways in which copyright, as a secular body of law, has been harnessed by various religious organisations to diverse ends. As such, the book will be less relevant for practising lawyers or policy-makers.

Book reviewed : Andrew Ventimiglia, Copyrighting God – Ownership of the Sacred in American Religion (Cambridge University Press, 2019). 254 pages. ISBN-10: 1108420516. ISBN-13: 978-1108420518. From £5.42 (paperback) and £75.77 (hard cover) via Amazon UK (here).

Book review: Copyrighting God Book review: Copyrighting God Reviewed by Mathilde Pavis on Friday, June 21, 2019 Rating: 5

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