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Vatican vows to ‘protect’ Pope Francis’ copyright

Associated Press

Vatican City — God’s love may be free, but the Vatican says it has a copyright on the pope.

Unnerved by the proliferation of papal-themed T-shirts, snow globes and tea towels around the world, the Vatican intends to “protect” the image of Pope Francis and “stop situations of illegality that may be discovered.” It also wants to protect the crossed keys emblem of the Holy See.

The Vatican has hired the global law firm Baker McKenzie to protect its intellectual property rights, the Italian daily Corriere della Sera reported without citing the source of the information. Baker McKenzie declined to comment.

The threat of enforcement marks a sea change for a church that for some 2,000 years has seen popes venerated on all manner of flags, banners and medals.

But the popularity of Francis and the ease with which his image can be copied in the internet age has spawned a flood of papal trinkets, causing the Holy See to worry that they are losing control of his image.

While in the past the Holy See might get word of improper use of the pope’s image through local church organizations around the globe, the approach was random.

“It’s not new that people were selling T-shirts of the pope, but (previously) those were probably little local vendors,” said Mark McKenna, an intellectual property expert at the Notre Dame Law School in Indiana.

What’s changed is the magnitude of what can be produced and how quickly it can be distributed through online platforms.

It’s not as if the church refrains from selling its own pope-themed material.

On the Vatican website, one can buy Francis medals, icons and rosary boxes. The Vatican museum boutiques offer silk ties and scarves and watches showing scenes from Michelangelo’s frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And that may be part of the Vatican’s motivation in safeguarding Francis’ face — and warning that they will challenge the copycats.