Is the Coptic Papal Throne Copyrightable?

What’s in a chair?

I’ve been watching the succession process of the Coptic Orthodox church since the much-beloved Pope Shenouda III passed away after more than 40 years of service to the church. The image of the vacant throne of St. Mark (the church’s founding saint and its first pope) provoked a lot of emotion, but it was also a display of spectacular Coptic art and sculpture.

As the process came to a close on November 18th with the enthronement of Pope Tawadros II as Pope Shenouda’s successor, I couldn’t help but notice that there were some major differences about the throne that many people looked at with wonder over the past few months. This is a picture of the throne as it was shortly after Pope Shenouda’s death:

The body of Pope Shenouda III lying in state on the papal throne of St. Mark in March 2012.

One of the biggest differences I noticed was the change of the icon of Christ used behind the pope during the enthronement of Pope Tawadros II:

The icon of Christ, while still Coptic in design, has been replaced (Source: CYC)

You may notice too that the look of the wooden lions that guard the throne have been changed to appear more dominant:

A side-by-side comparison of the appearance of the lions used in Pope Shenouda’s throne and Pope Tawadros’ throne.

You’ll also notice that the sculptures of St. Mark the Apostle that flanked Pope Shenouda were removed and replaced by a simpler column design.

All in all, it goes to show that the throne’s appearance was changed since Pope Shenouda’s departure. However, there is a question in my mind that I will attempt to answer now: is this design protected under intellectual property laws?

Industrial Design protects the aesthetics

The aesthetic design of any invention is entitled to its own protection under intellectual property laws (specifically, industrial design laws). When you make an effort to create a particular aesthetic look on a chair, for example, the chair looks different than any other chair one might look at. What this means is that if you wanted to make sure no one copies you, you would protect the design of the chair, and not the concept of making the chair itself. It’s silly to think that someone can “copyright” a chair because, well, you can’t! Anyone can make a chair. If you want to stop someone from copying you, you have to make sure that how you make the chair look is different than any other chair.

So, in the hypothetical case that someone would claim that Pope Tawadros’ papal throne infringed the industrial design of Pope Shenouda’s throne, you have to ask yourself: are there differences? Can someone claim copyright over the idea of having a chair flanked by guardian lions and a picture/sculpture of Christ above the chair? The answer is likely not. The fact is, you can’t claim copyright over an idea that is common. It has to be something more than just a simple design. If you ask anyone to come up with a design for a ‘throne’, they would likely give that description.

However, there may be some traction to the idea that the industrial design of the chair is protected. What this means is that anyone trying to copy the chair’s design to profit from it may be infringing a protected design (this is, of course, assuming that someone out there took the time to register the industrial design of the papal throne, and that somewhere out there, someone is selling little figurines of papal thrones without authorization).

I know I’m making a lot of assumptions here, but it’s something to think about.


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