Manchester Cathedral accuses Sony of ‘virtual desecration’

June 13, 2007, 4:00 PM UTC
Fortune

On Sunday, Church of England officials threatened legal action unless Sony (SNE) withdrew or altered a new Play Station 3 video game that, it claims, uses without permission the interior of Manchester Cathedral as a backdrop for gun battle between a U.S. soldier and extraterrestrial beings.

In the letter, available here from The Times (of London) site, the Very Reverand Rogers Govender writes that the Dean and Canons of the church were “shocked and dismayed beyond words” to see the use Sony had made of its cathedral in its PS3 game, Resistance: The Fall of Man, which, it says, amounts to “virtual desecration.” The Very Reverand asks for a meeting with Sony and then angles for a “substantial donation to our education department” for work against gun violence among the Manchester youth. (Manchester has been plagued by shootings.)

“We were sickened to discover,” the letter continues, “that millions of people who play the game have a choice of weaponry to use within the Cathedral including the Rossmore 236 close-quarter combat shotgun, the L23 Fareye sniper rifle and the XR-005 Hailstorm chaingun.”

A YouTube video of the (incredibly cool) game in action, which appears to be what got the Church of England officials bent out of shape, is available here.

The dispute has been well covered in the British press, (see, e.g., this Times article, or this BBC item) though I only learned about it yesterday from Bill Patry’s Copyright blog, here.

Sony Online Entertainment spokespeople have not yet responded to an emailed inquiry I made yesterday (even though I had to agree to receive emails about Sony’s game products as a condition of even obtaining the spokespeople’s contact information), but the British press quotes Sony as saying that it had all the permissions necessary to make the game.

A (London) Times reporter, after interviewing U.K. legal experts, concludes that the Church of England, or CoE (not a ticker symbol), might have a case, but U.K. intellectual property lawyer and blogger Andrew Mills of the Freeth Cartwright firm in Nottingham, has a much more detailed and skeptical analysis of the situation here.

The architecture of buildings does enjoy some copyright protection, under both U.K. and U.S. law, though that would not ordinarily interfere with other people taking photos or making drawings of the exterior. The assumption here is that CoE may be theorizing that Sony’s 3-D artists may have used copyrighted photos of the cathedral’s interior without permission. Solicitor Mills is dubious of that theory for many reasons, including the fact that copyright there lasts 70 years from the death of the copyright holder, and construction of Manchester Cathedral began in 1215. (Nevertheless, he acknowledges, there was extensive interior renovation in the 19th century, and post-World War II restoration after the cathedral was bombed in 1940.)

Bill Patry, who recently published a 7-volume treatise on U.S. copyright law, says in his blog posting that if our law applied (and the game was made here, he points out), CoE’s rights would probably be limited by Section 120(a) of the Copyright Act, which says that: “The copyright in an architectural work . . . does not include the right to prevent the making, distributing, or public display of . . . pictorial representations of the work, if the building in which the work is embodied is located in or ordinarily visible from a public place.”

How do readers feel about this dispute? Are you with the Church, with Sony, or agnostic?