Infallibility has a price, and apparently it’s $18,209. That’s what the Vatican just billed an Italian publisher for bootlegging an excerpt or two from speeches by new pope Benedict XVI, under a recent edict imposing strict copyright control on all papal writings going back 50 years. Reactions to the un-precedented embrace of intellectual property ranged from Catholics calling it a direct contradiction of the church’s mission to “spread the Word” to Web heads wondering why it took so long for Roman Catholicism to catch up with Scientology, which for years has used heavy-handed infringement suits to keep its official documents off the Web and out of sight. But in fact, when it comes to keeping words from spreading, the Vatican wrote the book, and now, just so nobody forgets it, it has built the website too: the surprisingly informative Vatican Secret Archives, where the church’s rich history of information control is on lovingly digitized display.
Naturally, a few delicate areas remain off-limits (the last 80 years, for instance), but otherwise the Archives let it all hang out. Blunt suppression of scientific truth? Here’s an autographed copy of the confessions that proved Galileo a heretic. Naked censorship of reformist dissent? Feast your eyes on the
very piece of paper that excommunicated Martin Luther. As these and other historic documents attest, the church fought long and hard and not altogether in
vain against the printing press’s threat to its feudal-era monopoly on information flow. Nowadays, of course, it’s the Web that threatens existing information monopolies, and it’s the media industries—hell-bent on turning copyrighted works into their perpetual fiefdoms—that are leading the reaction. But let’s give credit where it’s due: Info-feudalism may be the latest in corporate fashion, but popes invented it, and they can still rock it old-school if they have to.