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Early Friday morning, Catholic blogger and new media guru Brandon Vogt took the text of the papal encyclical Lumen Fidei from the Vatican website where it is available free online, and reformatted it for various readers like Kindle, Nook, and iPad , thinking that it would be a good and evangelical thing to do to spread the Pope’s words far and wide.

Shortly thereafter, the USCCB and Vatican(!) got hold of him. He was accused of violating “both civil and moral law” and “stealing from the pope,” ordering him “to remove the documents with full knowledge that this would prevent hundreds of people from reading it who otherwise wouldn’t read the encyclical online or in print.”

Tight control of copyright on official Church texts has provoked controversy in recent years. Those working for liturgical renewal are unhappy about the Church’s liturgical texts being bound in this way , regarding the situation as having to “pay-to-pray” the Church’s liturgy. The official Bible for Catholics in the United States, the New American Bible (NAB) is also bound under copyright restrictions. (Readers of First Things might not mind that so much , however.) Matt Warner tried distributing the Catechism of the Catholic Church daily via email as a response to Pope Benedict’s call in Porta Fidei to rediscover the content of the faith by reading the Catechism during the year of faith; USCCB lawyers ultimately sent him a cease and desist letter. The project continues with YouCat , thanks to Ignatius Press, which owns the copyright.

Clearly, the shopworn copyright system is not serving the Church’s mission in the twenty-first century. Copyright does serve important protective functions, of course. Is there a better way? Certainly: the Creative Commons license . Vogt explains:

Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be like this. There are plenty of solutions that both protect the integrity of Church teaching while also granting free access to share it. One stands out and it’s been suggested by many people:

Release all magisterial teaching under a Creative Commons-Attribution-NoDerivs license.

Here’s what each of the elements in that fancy, technical name means:

  • Creative Commons - A type of license that lets you share your work generously without losing your control over it

  • Attribution - Requires that proper credit be noted on any reproduction

  • NoDerivs - Prohibits changing or altering the work, or producing derivative versions

Under this license, people may copy, distribute, display, and perform only verbatim copies of the work. It’s an extremely popular way of safely distributing texts, especially digital content. In fact, over 400 million Creative Commons licenses have been deployed by individuals and large organizations, including Wikipedia . (The Creative Commons is partly why Wikipedia appears at the top of nearly every Google search page. The site is so popular because people routinely share its content. If the Church allows us to share her teachings freely and easily, we too would rise up in the search rankings.)

Surprisingly, the USCCB already does this for many of the resources available on its web site. For instance, the 2013 Catechetical Sunday materials contain this disclaimer:

Copyright © 2013, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

It’s a great idea and should be applied to all official Church resources, not just some.

Just to be extra clear, the Holy See and USCCB would still hold the copyrights to magisterial documents. They would still maintain their legal right and ability to prosecute anyone caught manipulating the text. Therefore they would maintain the textual integrity as much as they do now.

But the Creative Commons license would allow people interested in spreading Church teaching to do so freely. It would help bloggers, podcasters, artists, catechists, writers, publishers, and mobile app developers to freely integrate this content into their work and share it with the world.

Read the whole thing .

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