Copyrighting God

Ownership of the Sacred in American Religion

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Andrew Ventimiglia
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , November
     250 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Who owns religion? Or, more precisely, who owns your religion? Do its texts belong to public domain, or is it communally owned? Who can use its symbols and circulate its sacred words? These tricky questions are not just thought exercises, as Andrew Ventimiglia demonstrates in Copyrighting God: Ownership of the Sacred in American Religion—they have significant legal, social, and economic ramifications. Modern intellectual property law, “at least at first glance, evidences little concern with anything we might call religious,” but in this religious history of copyright Ventimiglia shows how this could not be further from the truth (43). Over the course of five chapters he uncovers the surprising historical entanglements of religion and intellectual property, detailing how religious groups like the Christian Scientists, Urantians, and Scientologists have used secular law to accomplish religious aims. Covering topics as wide-ranging as divine authorship, fair use doctrine, prophecy, and contributory infringement, Ventimiglia crafts a unique and thrilling study of religion and the law in the United States.

This book is organized around four case studies from distinct religious traditions. The first two chapters, which together constitute part 1, recount competing and conflicting visions within the Urantia community over the dissemination of the Urantia Book. Here, Ventimiglia explores how the Urantia Foundation, which owns the copyright to the Urantia Book, controlled the growth of the community by limiting the circulation of the text, and defended its copyright by claiming they were the proprietors, not authors, of the text. Authorship, according to Urantia lore, was a collective effort between celestial beings and sleeping human conduits. Here the book’s most fascinating conundrum surfaces: if the Foundation claimed the Urantia book was supernaturally authored, it risked losing its copyright to public domain, yet if the Foundation asserted the book was human authored, they would lose credibility and good will among followers. How the courts responded to these claims about divine authorship is the subject of chapter 2.

Part 2 further develops the themes of community control, textual purity, and organizational authority that were first introduced in part 1. The following three chapters explore the legal justifications that Mary Eddy Baker, the Philadelphia Church of God, and the Church of Scientology used to maintain their control over their communities and sacred texts. Chapter 3, which examines the often-overlooked history of copyright use in Christian Science, shows how Eddy recognized intellectual property law as an important tool for distinguishing herself and her texts as religiously unique in a marketplace of metaphysical offerings. Eddy relentlessly pursued those inside, and outside, of the Christian Science community who sought to use her words without attribution and permission. An innovator in the uses of copyright law, Eddy also became an activist for copyright reform alongside other prominent authors of her time. Chapter 4 returns to the late 20th-century context. Here, Ventimiglia provides a close reading of a dispute between the Worldwide Church of God and one of its dissenting sects, the Philadelphia Church of God. Themes of censorship and rightful succession shape this chapter wherein the Philadelphia Church of God willingly commits copyright infringement and publishes the Mystery of the Ages (1985), a controversial text from Herbert W. Armstrong, the Worldwide Church of God founder, stating, “[w]e certainly believe we were the rightful owners of the material spiritually” (156).

Throughout the text Ventimiglia states that the various groups he profiles found connections between their theological orientations and copyright law. Given this argument, it would be helpful for Ventimiglia to delve further into the theological underpinnings of the featured religions so readers could better understand why pursuing copyrights and infringements were religiously viable actions for leaders. He is most successful on this score in the fifth and final chapter on the Church of Scientology. The particularities of this chapter lie in the court cases between the Church of Scientology and internet service providers who unwittingly hosted uploaded Scientology documents. Here, Ventimiglia shows how Scientology’s perspective on the human mind as something to debug and audit to reach a “clear” state informed the way the Church pursued internet service providers—as if the internet “resembled Scientology’s post-clear utopia.” This meant that the service providers ought to hold individuals “responsible for the proliferation of activity within the network” (204). In addition to being the most theologically informative chapter, chapter 5 also demonstrates how copyright can help establish a group as a religion, and deem texts as esoteric secrets.

Readers of Copyrighting God will be confronted with a dizzying number of ways in which religious groups have used copyright law: to control the distribution and use of religious texts, to manufacture scarcity, to repress heterodox doctrine, to suppress critique, to control public perception, to accrue personal power, to sustain authority, and to create and protect sacred assets. Turning to intellectual property law “as a guarantor for religious vitality” (220) has worked for some, but as Ventimiglia suggests, anchoring sacred texts to secular law risks “ceding religious authority to legal authority” (218). Who, then, most benefits from soliciting the authority of secular law? The groups featured in Copyrighting Religion are all New Religious Movements [NRM]. While Ventimiglia briefly mentions other groups that have made use of copyright laws—like evangelical megachurches, Bikram yoga, and the Church of Christ—his selection of NRMs furthers his argument that emerging religious traditions increasingly find coherence in shared media, rather than centralized institutions. As such, new religious groups benefit most from harnessing intellectual property law to protect their sacred texts as they circulate in the American spiritual marketplace. However, the exclusion of other religious traditions leaves the reader wondering how widespread is the use of copyright law among religious organizations in the US at large? How might the connections Ventimiglia uncovers in this text be changed, or made more complex by comparison with copyright cases among more mainstream religious groups?

Copywriting God, situated at the intersections of religion, consumerism, media, secularism, and law, presents readers with a richness that exceeds the limited space of a review. Undergraduate and advanced readers of this unique and fascinating study will gain a renewed appreciation for the deep entanglement of religion and the law, and a new vantage through which to study the history of NRMs in the US.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cody Musselman is a doctoral student in American Religious History at Yale University.


Date of Review: 
October 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew Ventimiglia is a Research Fellow in the University of Queensland TC Beirne School of Law.


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