Copyrighting the Decalogue.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
May 20 2004 4:24 PM

Copyrighting the Decalogue

Does Roy Moore love the Ten Commandments so much that he wants to own them?

Judge Roy Moore famously lost his job as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court because he refused to remove a marble monument to the Ten Commandments from the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. The right to display the Ten Commandments in a government building will surely be the central issue in his presidential campaign, should he heed the urgings of Chatterbox and others to lure Christian right voters away from Bush. But Chatterbox wonders whether another issue will be the right to copyright the Ten Commandments, as Moore seems to have attempted.

If you scroll to the bottom of Moore's Aug. 25 complaint, which he filed in an attempt to win his old job back, you will find an attachment that reproduces the monument's "full text," which of course is the Decalogue, plus a string of quotations from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the State of Alabama, various Founding Fathers, and other documents touching on the relationship between God and the government of the United States. (Notably absent are any quotations from the Constitution of the United States.) After the quotations, the attachment ends with these baffling words:

Copyright information is inscribed below the quotations on the back of the monument, as follows: 

2001    R.S. Moore
             D.S. Melchior
             R.C. Hahnemann

Since only the last of these names, R.C. Hahnemann, identifies the monument's sculptor, Chatterbox finds it difficult to escape the conclusion that Moore and Stephen Melchior, an attorney on the case, wanted to copyright the Ten Commandments (along with a string of other quotations in the public domain). On the face of it, this is even more presumptuous than Donald Trump's recent effort to trademark the phrase, "You're fired." Chatterbox phoned Moore's spokeswoman, Jessica Atteberry, to find out what this copyright claim was all about. She said it was her understanding that Moore had helped design the monument and that Melchior had chosen, or helped to choose, the quotations about the relationship between God and the government. That jibes with Moore's own description, at the monument's dedication, of how it came to be built:

Immediately after my election in November of 2000, I contacted Mr. Richard Hahnemann, an accomplished sculptor, to assist me in the construction and design of this monument. Based upon my specifications, he worked, together with myself and my legal assistant and attorney, Mr. Stephen Melchior, for the past eight months to complete this project.

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Atteberry wasn't sure her description of the division of labor was right, however, and she had no answer to Chatterbox's query as to why Moore and Melchior felt it necessary, even under the circumstances she described, to claim part of the copyright for themselves. (At the monument's dedication, Moore thanked Clark Memorial, Pierre Tourney Sr., and Pierre Tourney Jr., "for their help in the construction, design and installation," but apparently none of these people rated inclusion in the copyright along with Moore and Melchior.) Atteberry said she'd have to take my questions and get back to me. But a couple of weeks later, after I'd prompted her several times, Atteberry said she would not answer Chatterbox's questions because she believed I was on "a witch hunt." Chatterbox subsequently phoned Melchior to ask him the same questions. Melchior directed me to leave my questions with his secretary; he would phone back with the answers. But Melchior never did phone back, even after Chatterbox left a second message.

What gives? Profit seems a logical motive, if not personal than for the political movement Moore has started. But Moore didn't lease or sell the statue to the state of Alabama; it's on loan, gratis. Indeed, some have suggested that the state should be charging Moore rent for removing and storing it, which reportedly ran up a $7,000 tab. (The thing weighs 5,280 pounds. The original tablets, you'll recall, were portable.) Hahnemann has said he'd like to sell bronze miniatures in order to support Moore's legal defense fund. But why would that require Moore and Melchior's names to be on the copyright? Don't they trust Hahnemann? The Web site for Moore's defense fund sells Ten Commandments plaques, lapel pins, T-shirts, and clocks, but none of these reproduces the design of the monument or the quotations on it about God and the government. Perhaps the explanation is simply the one offered by Ecclesiastes: "All is vanity."

Whatever Moore's and Melchior's motives, the U.S. Copyright Office didn't play along. An online search of its records yielded several books by Moore, but no statues.

Draft Moore Archive:
April 30, 2004: "Draft Moore: Decision Time"
April 8, 2004: "Draft Moore: The Web Site"
April 2, 2004: "Canary in the Moore Appeal?"
March 11, 2004: "Judge Roy Moore Speaks!"
March 9, 2004: "Moore Gets Coy"
Feb. 22, 2004: "Forget Nader. Draft Moore"

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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