Society of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Inc. v. Archbishop Gregory, 2010 WL 548114 (D. Mass. 2010)
A Greek Orthodox Monastery brought a copyright suit alleging that an archbishop had infringed a series of its translations of religious texts and that the Archbishop had breached a Settlement Agreement reached in a prior lawsuit involving one of the disputed works.
The Archbishop argued that the copyright to one of the works should as a matter of church law be transferred to the Rusian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. The argument was derived from an ongoing dispute that arose when the Greek Orthodox Monastery elected to leave the ROCOR. In 1994, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found that the Greek Orthodox Monastary was congregational in terms of property ownership and was the sole owner of all of its assets, not the ROCOR. See, e.g., Primate and Bishops’ Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia v. Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Resurrection, Inc., 418 Mass. 1001, 636 N.E.2d 211 (1994). The Court found that it didn’t need to re-open the dispute because there was no written transfer:
The court need not, however, accept the Archbishop’s invitation to delve into the intricacies of the doctrine of neutral principles as it applies to ecclesiastical disputes. The Copyright Act provides a simpler statutory answer. After 1978, a transfer of copyright, other than by operation of law, “is not valid unless an instrument of conveyance, or a note or memorandum of the transfer, is in writing and signed by the owner of the rights conveyed or such owner’s duly authorized agent.” 17 U.S.C. § 204(a).
As a side note, you can’t say for certain from the factual record, but this case may raise similar issues to those discussed in Schrock v. Learning Curve International, Inc., No. 08-1296 (7th Cir. 2009). The exclusive rights granted to a work employing preexisting material covered by copyright, such as many translations, do not extend to any part of the work in which the material was used without permission. 17 U.S.C. 103(a).
If the greek text of the disputed work contains copyrightable subject matter added by the ROCOR, such as annotations or editing choices made recent enough so that they are not in the public domain, the Monastary may, or may not, possess exclusive rights in its translation of the text. The outcome would depend on whether the Court adopted the Seventh Circuit’s finding from Schrock that when a rightsholder grants permission to a second author to make a derivative work, barring an agreement between the parties otherwise, the second author retains a copyright in the derivative work, even if the rightsholder later attempts to revoke permission.
The Archbishop’s copying of one of the works at issue omitted footnotes and three words, added some question marks, changed the spelling of six words, and added some headlines. The Court found that the work was substantially similar to the Monastery’s.
The Court then looked to whether the copying was a non-infringing fair use. The Court cited Campbell v. Acuff Rose for the proposition that not only is fair use an affirmative defense, but that a defendant has a “burden of proof” to show that the copying was non-infringing. The Court found that the use of the work was infringing.
Purpose and character
The Archbishop argued that his use was non-commercial (purely for devotional purposes), which was not disputed, and that his use was transformative because he placed a portion on the internet. The Court rejected the argument finding that a “simple repackaging” of a work in a new media context is “not transformative when the result is simply a mirror image reflected on a new mirror,” and found that the factor weighed in favor of the Monastery.
Nature of the copyrighted work
The Archbishop argued that the work at issue was factual as part of his religion, and as such, the factor weighed in favor of a finding of fair use. The Court found that the work was more closely akin to a creative work:
As a theological precept, this may ring true to a believer, but from an objective legal perspective, a religious contemplation in the form of a Homily (an admonitory sermon or discourse) falls more appropriately within the category of a work of imagination and creativity. While a translation is by definition derivative, some translations-the King James Version of the Bible comes to mind-are nonetheless thought to be “original in their own right.” This factor, on the whole, weighs in favor of the Monastery.
The amount and substantiality
The Court found that the Archbishop incorporated the entirety of one of the works on his website for “no apparent purpose other than avoiding the trouble and expense of creating a version of his own.”
The Monastery did not allege any specific lost sales or profits as a result of the infringement. The Monastary instead noted that it has had to expend time and resources to enforce its rights in the work. The Court found that, “given Campbell’s emphasis on the deterrence of injurious conduct by others as a consideration separate and apart from a showing of actual market harm, this factor too weighs in favor of the Monastery.”