Religious Perspectives on Intellectual Property

The bishop's gambit

My talk was part of the opening plenum titled Religious Perspectives on Intellectual Property. The chairperson and other speakers were a Bishop, an Archbishop and a Cardinal. We all wore similar charcoal suits, but whereas I wore a white shirt and regular tie, rather like the sort of thing I’d have worn to Synagogue in the UK, the others wore black shirts and dog collars. I felt a little like a bagel at Mass, although everyone was very friendly.

The plenum was chaired by the Rt Rev John Sherrington, Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster, Department of Christian Responsibility, The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales’. Right Reverend Sherrington is a delightful chap that I could imagine spending a happy evening with in a pub. He wore the largest Crucifix I’ve seen around someone’s neck outside a vampire movie. Apparently, the cross is worn opposite the heart and a ring, symbolizing marriage to the church, is worn on the finger. I reflected that Judaism has bondage style black strapped phylacteries (Tefillin) that hold the paragraphs of the first and second paragraphs of the Shema (dealing with Unity of God and reward and punishment in the Promised Land) and other texts in a box worn on the triceps opposite the hand, and the strap is wrapped seven times round the forearm and then thrice around the finger, symbolizing past, present and future as a sort of eternity ring, whilst reciting Hosea 2: 21 “And I will betroth thee unto Me forever; yea, I will betroth thee unto Me in righteousness, and in justice, and in lovingkindness, and in compassion.” Although the symbol is different, the symbolism is the same.

His Eminence Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, Apostolic Nuncio: Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the UN Office in Geneva & WTO spoke on “The contribution of the Holy See to the Intellectual Property debate at the multilateral level”. This was followed by a talk titled “IP Rights and the Fundamental Right to the Commons in the Light of Catholic Social Teaching” by Monsigneur Osvaldo Neves de Almeida, Holy See Secretariat of State, with responsibility for TRIPs (WTO), UNCTAD and formerly for WIPO.

Archbishop Tomasi spoke very well, but didn’t say anything substantive. There was nothing notably Catholic about it. No scriptural references. There was a lot of pontification about respecting patents and copyright as private property whilst finding a balance with the common good and the importance of feeding the poor. The overall effect was somewhat similar to what might happen if an eminent Rabbi were to be asked to address a mixed faith academic conference. As I pointed out in the subsequent discussion, IP Law attempts to do just that but providing geographical and time limited monopolies and fair use clauses. It seemed to me that either the Catholic Church’s representation at WIPO has no effect, or, the various international treaties governing IP resulted from Catholic teaching.

Monsigneur Osvaldo Neves de Almeida’s talk was more interesting. He gave the impression of having more specific knowledge regarding both ethical issues relating to IP, and the church’ position. However, his English, though far superior to my Latin, was nevertheless not great. I think there is a problem that Catholic Bishops are conformists. One cannot expect two bishops to assume different positions, or a third bishop chairing the event, to ask a challenging question. Also, like most Rabbis, it seems that bishops don’t feel the need to use slides. Unlike many Rabbis, they also don’t seem to use parables or jokes to try to engage the audience.

I was afraid that the audience were quietly phasing out, and when I took the podium I decided to wake them. I asked for a quick show of hands to determine which members of the audience were theologians, which were academics and which were patent practitioners.

Vicars and Tarts  see also BBC REV! Series 1 Episode 6.

I then stated that if, instead of a serious, erudite and formal conference, this was a ‘Vicars and Tarts party’ and, after, about two minutes, when the laughter had died down enough to finish the sentence, I noted that I’d have come along as a tart, since I, like other patent attorneys, was an Intellectual Prostitute in that I used my skills to provide services to anyone willing to pay and that I don’t have any professional morals, or at least very few.
I spoke on “Patents, Life and Social Justice: Musings of a Mosaic Maven”. I started with noting that the classic sources such as the Bible, the Talmud and Responsa literature have a lot to say about life and about social justice. However, since patents have only been around since towards the end of the 18th century, there was nothing about patents, and thus nothing about life, patents and social justice. However, I discussed a fascinating anecdote brought in the Babylonian Talmud (Avoda Zara 28a) that relates to life, trade secrets and social justice:
We have a Tradition:
Rabbi Yohanan* suffered from scurvy#. He went to a Roman matron on Thursday and
again on Friday, and received some medicine for his gums. He asked her what he should do the
following day [Shabbat], and she told him that he was cured. He asked for details of the treatment and swore to the God of Israel that he would keep her secret. She told him the treatment. The following day at the beginning of his Sermon, Rabbi Yohanan announced the treatment.

Question – but he’d promised her. Answer, he’d already told her that it wasn’t a real
promise.
Question, but he’d swore on the God of Israel. Answer, not exactly. He’d swore to
the God of Israel, i.e. not to reveal to God [who knows all things anyway, but hadn’t
sworn not to tell people.
Question, but it is a Hillul Hashem – a desecration of the Divine Name. [this is the typical term applied to Jews behaving badly in front of non-Jews]. Answer, he told her that he’d break his promise.
Said R. Nahman b. Isaac: Scurvy is different, because although starting in the mouth it extends to the intestines.

Babylonian Talmud Avoda Zara 28a
*180 – 280 C.E. Tzipori (Galilee, Israel – the cure evidently worked as Rabbi Yoachanan lived 100 years!
# Tsadfina – Greek Sӗpedόn (putrid abscess), related to sӗptikόs (Latin, Septicus → septic

Rabbi Nahman b. Isaac’s explanation is that since scurvy is a fatal disease, the common good reflecting the right to know, outweighed confidentiality and the personal property rights of the Roman matron.

I then discussed the political, historical and theological ramifications of the Weizmann patent, a fairly insignificant 135 line document that described using bacteria to make acetone and butanol. Acetone helped the British synthesize explosives and was very significant in the British War Effort in World War I and butanol enabled the US to make butadiene for artificial rubber in the World War II. Amongst other ramifications, Weizmann’s influence, resulting from the patent, was instrumental in securing the Balfour Declaration and US recognition of the State of Israel, an event that I suggested had theological ramifications for Christians. Having run out of time, I skipped to recent cases and concluded that most controversial issues concerning life science patents, such as BRAC gene patenting, patent term extensions for medicines and the like, were really issues concerning whether or not one believed in capitalism. The main exception is stem cell research which is not patentable subject matter in Europe following Catholic pressure, since Catholics see life as starting with conception. Judaism sees life as starting at 40 days, when membranes form, which, a bio-ethicist explained to me actually comes from Aristotle. That as may be, in Israel, there is no opposition to stem cell research from Rabbis or from religious parties. One hopes that if any treatments result, that Catholics and other Christian groups with similar beliefs will be prepared to use the treatments and won’t see them as being the fruit from the poisoned tree. The full 11,000 word paper will be published shortly.

Over coffee (accompanied by Walkers biscuits with have a (U)D Kosher Certification) a Catholic professor quoted Milton Friedman to the effect that companies’ only purpose is to make money, and disagreed with bishops seeing companies as having a responsibility towards the third world. I am aware that there are dissenters to Friedman’s position, but don’t think that companies have moral or religious duties, only people do.

It occurred to me that none of the senior Catholic clergymen could have made the Vicars and Tarts joke. Furthermore, due to Papal infallibility, the Auxiliary Bishop chairing the plenum could not challenge the Archbishop or the Cardinal.
Afterwards, I had some other realizations that were more disturbing. It seems that due to a combination of factors such as recent pedophilia scandals, the secular mainstream and the fact that Catholicism is a minority faith in the UK, even bishops are unable to preach. All three steered clear of concepts such as God, faith or religious duty.

To put it another way, the previous evening I’d seen the ABBA juke-box musical Mama Mia in the West End. The story line is about 20-year-old Sophie who is preparing to marry her fiancé. She wants her father to walk her down the aisle but does not know who he is since her Mother Donna had had intimate relations with three men. As a pregnant single woman, she’d been thrown out of the house. Sophie wanted to get married so that her children would know who their father was. One of the candidates was homosexual. One had stayed faithfully married to a women he didn’t love. Donna’s girlfriend was twice divorced. In other words, the musical had more to say about personal life choices than either of the bishops’ lectures.

Disturbingly, Monsigneur Osvaldo Neves de Almeida mentioned the three transcendental religions, Catholicism, Islam and Judaism. I realized that as a Jew, I was acceptable to be on a panel with them, however, the Presbyterians, Anglicans, Evangelicals and others in the audience were not. I had had similar issues at the event I arranged in 2011. I was blocked from having non-Orthodox professors presenting.

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