Does the pope own the Vatican brand? Spain, so far, says yes

By ARITZ PARRAMarketsAssociated Press

A Vatican crackdown on the commercial use of its name and official emblems has encountered resistance from a Spanish website that refuses to give up referencing the seat of the Catholic Church in its masthead.

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The case against InfoVaticana.com, one of hundreds of copyright actions taken by the church, is part of a broader legal debate over whether the Holy See can claim full ownership of the "Vatican" brand and its derivatives.

So far, Spain's trademark office has taken the Vatican's side. It ruled in September that the privately run website, which publishes articles about religion in Spanish and Italian, can't register as a brand because that would mislead readers into thinking it was tied to the Holy See.

The Spanish Patent and Trademark Office also concluded that InfoVaticana.com's designers had used copyrighted symbols and emblems without the copyright owner's permission.

Managers scratched yellow and white — the colors of the Vatican's flag — from the website, along with the Holy See's official emblem and a logo that featured Saint Peter's keys. But the site's founders are fighting to hold on to the InfoVaticana name and have appealed the Spanish copyright office's decision.

Founder Gabriel Ariza alleges that the Vatican is engaging in a "political witch-hunt" against his site in retaliation for InfoVaticana.com's crusade against corruption in the Catholic Church, especially in Spanish religious institutions.

"We have already taken down previous logos and other vestiges that can relate us to the Vatican, but they just want to shut us down," Ariza said. "It would be like the City of New York denying The New York Times the right to their brand."

The Vatican rejected Ariza's claim that InfoVaticana.com was targeted in a personal or unusual way.

"It is not a matter of ideology or freedom of expression, but one of officialdom," Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said in a written statement to The Associated Press. "It is not correct to give the impression that one speaks or asks for donations in the name of the Holy See when it does not correspond to the truth."

InfoVaticana is hardly the only private enterprise to be called out on copyright claims. The Vatican has launched hundreds of actions to protest the use of the pope's image and the Holy See in everything from souvenirs sold at monasteries and university logos to the marketing materials of foundations and business organizations.

According to the Vatican, a system has been set up to monitor the way in which the pope's image and emblem, the Vatican's city and estate coat of arms, and the Holy See's emblems, flags, seals and names are being used around the world.

The campaign was launched in 2009, under Pope Benedict XVI, "to protect the figure and personal identity of the Pope ... for ends and activities which have little or nothing to do with the Catholic Church." It continued after Pope Francis' arrival five years ago.

In a February 2017 statement, the Vatican said it aims to protect the image of the pope "so that his message can reach the faithful in full and his person is not exploited." Hoping to lead by example, the Vatican stopped minting euro coins bearing Francis' image, prompting a frenzy among collectors for the older coins. The new coins carry the Vatican's coat of arms and European Union stars.

Many commercial websites use the Vatican name, including Vatican.com, a travel booking site that carries a disclaimer stating it is unaffiliated with the church headquarters and city-state. The Vatican Insider is the religion site and pages published by Italian daily newspaper La Stampa, which conspicuously features its connection to the supplement.

Neither Vatican.com nor The Vatican Insider has been challenged for copyright infringement. InfoVaticana was active for years without any legal problems. Vatican lawyers lodged a complaint with the Spanish trademark office after the website's owners attempted to register it as a brand.

Ariza says an international law firm the Vatican hired to deal with copyright litigation, Baker and McKenzie, has threatened to sue if InfoVaticana isn't shut down and has its internet domain transferred to the Vatican.

Baker and McKenzie said it was not authorized by its client to speak publicly about the case.

InfoVaticana.com, which has nearly 22,000 followers in Spain, offers an alternative and highly opinionated view of current affairs and church matters.

Articles on the site have alleged a lack of transparency among Catholic institutions. The site also has angered people outside conservative religious circles with content opposing abortion rights, same-sex marriages and adoptions by gays and lesbians — articles its editors group under a "gender tyranny" tag.

Ariza said the site loses money, but he refused to discuss its finances in detail. He said online donations from readers have been enough to pay the salary of one full-time employee. He and another permanent contributor give their time pro bono, he said.

"We think that serving the Church is defending it from its enemies," Ariza said, "not only external but also internal, from those who have filled the temple with merchants."

The Spanish trademark office said there was no deadline for a final decision on InfoVaticana.com's appeal.