I have for quite some time been involved in the Free Culture and Free Software communities. I have long felt that this affiliation was a natural outgrowth of my faith in Jesus, but I have not written much on this topic.
I believe that a desire to see the world reached for Christ requires that we not restrict the distribution and re-use of Gospel materials, that a desire to control one’s own work must not come before the spiritual needs of worshipers, that a belief in mutual aid is aligned with freedom, and that good stewardship requires a proper evaluations of all options before we spend our God-given resources.
A Desire to Reach the World
My first real encounter with this first issue came when I was in Bible College. For individual use, quotations of the New International Version of the Bible (the most popular English translation) must be no more than 50 verses, and must not be more than 5% of the total of the work in which they appear. This means that handouts or flyers comprised of primarily Bible verses are prohibited. For a church the limits are raised to 500 verses and 25%, but still the issue largely remains. There are various other limitations, including the statement: “This limited license may be revoked and/or modified at any time by Biblica in its sole and absolute discretion.” So at any time, and without warning, my quoted material might no longer be an allowed use!
This bothers me greatly. Do we not want people to read the Bible? Is not the proliferation of the scriptures a primary goal of many Christian organizations? Why would it be right to ban the reproduction or distribution of the scriptures, which are at any rate not the original creative work of the copyright holder, but the inspired word of God! If we truly wish to reach the world, to encourage each other to get out and share the Word with others, then we must be, at very least, allowed to share the Word at all! We should not be asking for “$10,000 + $10/copy distributed” just to distribute the scriptures (citation).
For quite awhile, this issue led me to use only the original text of the King James Version of the Bible. I have since found some other translations that believe that the scriptures should be shared with others, including the excellent World English Bible, but this issue is not only restricted to Bible translations. Many materials of great use in the work of spreading the Gospel are similarly restricted, including: songs, pamphlets, bible story books, curricula, sermons, videos, and much more.
The Spiritual Needs of Worshipers
It has become common practice in Evangelical churches to have special guests who will lead (often musical) worship for a single service. Often these guests will end the worship time with an invitation to “visit their table at the back” to purchase merchandise related to their unique abilities. This is highly reminiscent of a concert where the act sells merchandise to fans as they depart. It is also reminiscent of those events which caused Jesus to say: “Take these things out of here! Don’t make my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:16)
Is it wrong for Christian workers to ask to be compensated for their work? Certainly not. The scripture is full of statements to the contrary. Workers deserve to be compensated for their work. However, no one should capitalize on worship activities. The spiritual needs of God’s people are not a market opportunity to be seized, but a ministry opportunity to be cared for. Many churches pay high licensing fees for the right to publicly display just the lyrics to worship songs during services!
When I was in University, I was a member of a small (under 20 people) InterVarsity chapter. There was a desire amongst the group to join together in musical worship, and so the proper licensing was sought. The cost to display just the lyrics was $60! If we gained just a few more members, the cost would rise to $125! So we sought direct permission from the authors of popular worship songs, thinking that certainly our brothers and sisters in Christ would see this small student group as an opportunity for ministry. Very few did. Notably, the David Crowder Band gave us complete permission to use their songs. Other artists (or, more often, the labels to whom they’ve sold their right) wanted much more money, or were uninterested in dealing with us at all.
There does exist the Open Hymnal Project to group together such hymns as have fallen into the Public Domain, or other worship songs which may be freely used. Sadly, there is very little in the way of so-called “modern” worship music available to be used for worship purposes. Think of that! It is prohibited to use worship music for worship purposes unless you can get explicit permission. Do we not wish for God’s people to worship?
Suppose your church has a piece of software to aid in display of lyrics for worship purposes. Simply paste in the song lyrics, select a background, and there you go. You find that at a sister church, someone has to spend hours each week copying and pasting the lyrics to the song set into slide presentation software in order to display it during worship time. Well, you wish to help your sister church, and you have this software, so what is the problem? Give them a copy of the software and all will be well. But if this software is proprietary then giving them a copy is a potential cause of action! So, you are not allowed to help.
Luckily, when I experienced this exact issue I was able to direct our sister church to the excellent freedom-respecting software OpenLP, which they now use happily, but this sort of issue can arise so often. Many churches find their computers are running office software, or even operating systems, that a member simply “loaned” to the church — running the risk of legal action they are not aware of, because the members wanted to help.
This is not just the case with churches helping each other, but also within the body of Christ generally. We are called to the mutual aid one of another. This is much more easily done when the tools we have and produce may be freely shared with each other!
The last point I will touch on in this article is that of stewardship. Often, the reason any given Christian organization goes along with the status quo is simply that it is the status quo. Licenses are paid for music, lyrics, and software; CDs (and books and don’t even get me started on “holy hardware”) are sold; new material produced has its copyright dutifully enforced (or at least no license is given for it); bible quotations are limited (or the limitations ignored, at the risk of legal action); all because it seems to be the way things are done. But does not good stewardship of our resources require that we make the effort to find and evaluate all of our options? If someone is offering us material or tools that are useful to us at a lower cost, should that not be evaluated? Freedom is not always cheaper, but when it is that is certainly a factor.
Should we not so much more seek to help others? Why any church insists on keeping the copyright of its sermon podcast or blog posts is beyond me. These materials are almost wholly produced by volunteers or already-paid staff as a part of their normal function in the church. Should not other believers and other churches benefit from this work that has already been done to further the kingdom? This is why, at least for me, I cannot in good conscience release useful material that it is forbidden to share on reuse. I feel that my faith demands I gWhen I was in University, I was a member of a small (under 20 people) InterVarsity chapter. There was a desire amongst the group to join together in musical worship, and so the proper licensing was sought. The cost to display just the lyrics was $60! If we gained just a few more members, the cost would rise to $125! So we sought direct permission from the authors of popular worship songs, thinking that certainly our brothers and sisters in Christ would see this small student group as an opportunity for ministry. Very few did. Notably, the David Crowder Band gave us complete permission to use their songs. Other artists (or, more often, the labels to whom they’ve sold their right) wanted much more money, or were uninterested in dealing with us at all.rant freedom to others.