Church of Scientology vs.

Tax-exempt cult shouldn't be allowed to copyright doctrine

The Business Journal, June 7, 1999
by Dennis Taylor is about to be tested by one of the most litigious cults ever assembled--and consumers soon will learn how much grit the Seattle-based online bookseller has.

In February Amazon removed from its offerings a controversial exposé critical of the Church of Scientology, founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1959.

To Amazon's credit, it reversed its position just before Memorial Day and is again offering the book. Amazon was deluged with complaints from angry customers--myself included--following the disclosure that it had removed the book from its shelves.

While Amazon officials remained vague about the reasons for initially pulling "A Piece of Blue Sky," as did the book's UK publisher, Carol Publishing Group, the threat of a lawsuit from Scientology is ever-present.

Scientology sued the book's author, Jon Atack, for reprinting portions of Scientology's doctrine in his book. In 1998 Scientologists successfully sued Keith Henson, a Palo Alto electrical engineer, for posting those doctrines on the Internet. Both times Scientology claimed copyright infringement.

Here's the rub: Scientology has a tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service, since it has won the right to call itself a "church." Yet it makes millions annually from mandatory charges to its members, as well as from sales of its books and videos. It's a business. I'm sure it has some sort of spiritual meaning to its members--there's a longing soul looking for badly needed enlightenment born every day. But it has revenue and profit, and the fact it pays no income taxes while at the same time whining about copyright infringement has raised my hackles.

I was thinking about starting my own church. I'll call it "The Church of the Sacred Chip." I believe we humans are cursed with inherent ignorance, and the only way to reach pure enlightenment is to buy the Sacred Box that contains the Sacred Chip, which can shake off those rascally metaparticles of ignorance.

I will, of course, seek nonprofit status from the IRS since my followers and I have the faith, baby, that our Sacred Chip will deliver us. And, you betcha, our Sacred Chip will be patented. A large portion of the proceeds from our customers--excuse me, members--will be funneled into well-oiled legal firms that will sue the pants off anyone who dares to reprint our architecture, which of course will be called church doctrine.

Of course, other churches, like Holy Intel and Blessed AMD, will be welcome to join The Church of the Sacred Chip, while the IRS turns a blind eye to the whole racket.

Granted, the IRS tried for years to fight Scientology by refusing to recognize its tax-exempt status. But after protracted litigation, it settled with church leaders a few years back for what amounts to only a shred of what would have been back taxes the government would have collected. Meanwhile, individual taxpayers and businesses get to support the government services Scientology does not.

Look, if Scientology is able to get over on the Feds, with the support of the courts, more power to it, I suppose. But to sue writers, ex-church members, opponents, publishers or anyone who shares with the world its doctrine, on the basis of copyright infringement, and then duck behind its tax-exempt status, it galling. It shouldn't be allowed to have it both ways. Either it is a tax-exempt church that should not be able to copyright its doctrine any more than the Bible, Talmud or Koran can be patented; or it's a business that can copyright its written word, but then which must pay taxes on the profits of those works like any other publisher.

Amazon's decision to go forward with the sale of the book is admirable and possibly profitable. "A Piece of Blue Sky," after languishing in obscurity since it was published in 1990, hit No. 148 in top selling books on Amazon's list of 4.5 million titles.

The bookseller should be saluted for its decision, one that will undoubtably land it in a court of law.

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