1st Circuit Applies Neutral Principles Approach in Church Copyright Dispute

Here’s an unusual church property dispute. The Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline, Massachusetts brought a copyright infringement action against a former monk who had posted on his website English-language translations of ancient Christian texts the monastery had prepared. The former monk, now an archbishop in a different Christian communion, raised a number of copyright defenses, including fair use and non-originality. Last week, the First Circuit rejected all the archbishop’s defenses and ruled in favor of the monastery. The copyright issues are quite dense and apparently of real importance to copyright lawyers. For CLR Forum readers, though, the case is significant for its implications for church autonomy doctrine. The archbishop argued that the monastery’s statutes gave title to the texts to the monastery’s then-parent body, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, or ROCOR. (The monastery has since ended its affiliation with ROCOR). Using the neutral principles approach, the First Circuit rejected this argument. Applying “the Monastic Statutes’ plain terms,” and “without treading upon religious doctrine, church governance, and ecclesiastical laws,” title to the texts rested in the monastery, not ROCOR. The case is Society of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Inc. v. Gregory, 2012 WL 3125120 (1st Cir., Aug. 2, 2012).

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