Copyrighting the Church: From the Vatican to the Missionaries of Charity

Can a trademark really “dirty the image” of a saint?

The former head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Saints, Portuguese Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, is quoted in the Italian magazine Panoramasaying that the recent decision by the Missionaries of Charity to trademark the blue and white sari made famous by Mother Teresa is a “questionable and inappropriate business initiative.”

The sari is white with one large blue stripe, and two smaller blue stripes. It was designed by Mother Teresa in 1948, and serves as the habit for the order.

Biswajit Sarkar, the lawyer for the order of religious sisters, applied for the trademark in 2013, and it was granted last year.

However, the Missionaries of Charity didn’t reveal the Indian government’s decision during the celebrations surrounding their founder’s canonization on September 4, 2016.

“The Missionaries of Charity does not believe in publicity and as such it was not publicized,” Sarkar said. The lawyer said there is “unscrupulous and unfair usage of the design across the globe.”

Saraiva Martins said, “Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta is a universal symbol, loved by believers, non-believers, and followers of other faiths,” adding it was “absurd to pay a tax” on the order’s distinctive habit.

The cardinal oversaw the Vatican’s office for saints when Mother Teresa was beatified in 2003.

He said the move “dirtied the image” of the saint.

The case is believed to be the first time a religious order has protected its habit as intellectual property, although the actual details of the case may mean the protection is rather limited.

Trademarks, unlike copyrights, generally must be sought in each individual nation, and so far, trademark protection has only been granted in India. It is unclear if the sari would even meet the requirements for trademark protection in other countries.

This hasn’t stopped the Missionaries of Charity from trying to claim such ownership of what it called the “patrimony of its order,” which includes “Mother Teresa’s life, works, words, name, image.”


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