Forgive us our (virtual) trespasses..

As reported by the BBC, the Church of England is considering legal action against Sony:

Cathedral row over video war game

9 June 2007

The Church of England is considering legal action against entertainment firm Sony for featuring Manchester Cathedral in a violent PlayStation video game. The Church says Sony did not obtain permission to use the interior in the war game Resistance: Fall of Man. The game, which has sold more than one million copies, shows a virtual shoot-out in the cathedral’s nave in which hundreds of enemies are killed. Sony said it believed it had sought all necessary permission for the game.

Now this is rather interesting, because the plans for Manchester Cathedral, having originated in about 1215, (and even though construction continued into the early 1800’s) have long since entered the public domain. So I am unsure of exactly what law the Church of England plans to use. Is there such a thing a virtual trespass? Or is some other principle at work here?

It’s even conceivable that the Church of England would use the law against blasphemy or desecration, which is, in fact still illegal in the U.K. The fact that apparently someone from Sony visited the Cathedral and took pictures while there recently may be important especially if a written picture (or photography) permit was required and what the terms of that permit were.

However, it is very doubtful that the Church of England will, in fact, have to resort to legal filings to stop this game from using the depiction of Manchester Cathedral in the battle sequence. Simply put, there is a cultural dimension to any work of art/architecture, whose role extends beyond the legal constraints of copyrights and trademarks etc.

A recent comment that I’d made in response to a post by Tom W. Bell speaks directly to the reality of there being a larger social dimension to the rights to re-use art, especially art that has a larger social significance. I had not at all considered a case like that of Sony v. Church of England when I had written:

3. Larger cultural context: The example I have brought up above about architecture rules in some European countries raises the issue that art plays a cultural role in the larger society, and some art is, in a sense, the property of society at large, in that all would be much poorer without it. So, even if someone owned a van Gogh, nearly everyone would agree that it would be profoundly immoral for him or her to burn it, obviously. So we can’t neglect the role and importance of art in society.

Posted by: enigma_foundry on June 6, 2007 10:01 PM

Now a couple of thoughts:

1. If the Manchester Cathedral were depicted in a movie, with the same story line, it’s doesn’t seem to me that the same degree of outrage would have been generated. I think the outrage stems from the continuing nature of this (virtual) trespass, as well as the triviality that the landmark is given, just as a back drop. For example, in the recent movie the Da Vinci code, there are several violent scenes that took place in Churches, and no similar outrage occurred.

2. If the Church of England fails to get some concession from Sony, it’s not entirely unlikely that there will be some agitation for some form of ‘IP’ protection to prevent this from happening again. What would that protection look like, and how would/could it work, without significantly burdening the Freedom of Speech?

3. When the cartoons of Mohamed were released, there were many who were opposed to any concession to those who wanted to restrict the freedom to distribute those cartoons. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, as it were, it seems that the general mood is to not allow Sony to proceed, or at least Sony seems to be painted as the bad guy.

4. Note that none of the articles about the Sony v. Church of England are couched in terms of ‘free speech,’ where as nearly ALL of the articles about the Mohamed cartoons were framed in those terms. I think the key difference here is political vs. commercial speech.

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Forgive us our (virtual) trespasses..

One thought on “Forgive us our (virtual) trespasses..

  1. >>If the Manchester Cathedral were depicted in a movie, with the same story line, it’s doesn’t seem to me that the same degree of outrage would have been generated.

    I am really not sure about that. The Church of England doesn’t operate as one big conglomerate in these things – the leadership of each cathedral is free to act for itself and it’s entirely plausible that Manchester Cathedral would have turned them down flat whether it was a movie or a videogame. Certainly there are other cathedrals that have refused various requests to film and so moviemakers ‘make do’ with other similar venues.

    Also, I’ve said as much over on my blog where you kindly commented, but this isn’t Sony v Church of England. It’s Sony v Dean & Chapter of Manchester Cathedral. It’s the leadership of the cathedral complaining, using the media to make their point and threatening legal action – not the entire church.

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