Monopolies for Monks: The Law, Copyrights And A Church
Last Thursday a Boston district court judge ruled in favor of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, finding that a former member, now an archbishop in another Orthodox sect, illegally copied seven of the monastery’s texts and posted them to his website.
It’s a fascinating case but difficult to break down as it lies at the intersection of two particularly arcane subjects — copyright law and the politics of the Orthodox church. Even the appeal ruling’s single-sentence conclusion conveyed some bewilderment: “Our pilgrimage through the complexities of copyright law concluded, we keep our words here few — for the foregoing reasons, we affirm the decision of the district court.”
At its most basic level, the dispute concerns how to balance the right of the monks to make a living — via a government-granted monopoly — against internet-age understandings of fair use, and the church’s evangelical interest in religious texts being openly available. The texts in question run the gamut from an original translation of the Psalter based on the septuagint to a set of homilies by the seventh-century bishop St. Isaac the Syrian.
The Holy Orthodox Church of North America, a small synod of which the Holy Transfiguration Monastery (HTM) is effectively the spiritual seat, and the Genuine Orthodox Church of America, which Archbishop Gregory now leads, both have their spiritual roots in the Russian Orthodox Church but separated during the movement toward ecumenism in the mid-1980s, which both groups consider a heresy. According to OrthodoxWiki, “HOCNA is not in communion with any mainstream Orthodox church.” Prior to that time, the HTM was “spiritually affiliated” with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad.
“When the bishops … who took over after the death of the metropolitan in 1985 had a different mind and began changing the direction of the church—which is a very long and complicated story—we broke that,” says Father Pacomius, a monk at HTM who worked on several of the translations in question. “But there was no legal bond between us that gave them any control over our property or copyrights. The copyrights were in the Holy Transfiguration Monastery’s name.”