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Is it Sinful to Use Copyright Laws?

April 27th, 2008
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The other day I received a Google Alert on the Concordia edition of the Book of Concord. A pastor had referred to it in a blog post. I went to the blog site and read the following:

   One of my tasks is to develop and make available new ways of catechesis and
discipleship. For this reason, I
was thrilled when a compatriot of mine
suggested the development of the entire Book of Concord (Concordia, the
Lutheran Confessions,) be made available (for free) in mp3 and on CD
audio, so that those who desired to grow in the mind of Christ might,
say, listen to the Formula for Harmony on the way to work.

A wonderfully good idea, to be sure! There is just one problem. The project represents a violation of copyright law. I posted a comment on the blog site that the Concordia edition of the Book of Concord is copyrighted and thus can not be done without permission of the copyright holder. I also indicated that Concordia Publishing House would probably not grant permission because we have plans to do audio recordings of it ourselves. I suggested that he make use of the English translation of the Book of Concord that is in the public domain.

The pastor responded by saying that he believes it is sinful for Concordia Publishing House to use copyright laws, and that the laws are themselves sinful. He proceeded to indicate that he believes CPH is doing a disservice to the Gospel in copyrighting the Concordia edition of the Book of Concord.

Is it sinful for Christians to use copyright laws? In this post, I’d like to address a common misunderstanding that circulates around the church about copyright laws and their use. I hope I can do this in such a way as not to give the impression that I am being defensive. It is a challenge to address these issues without people receiving that impression, particularly when they have a firm opinion about the issue. But, I’ll give it a go.

Is it a sin for a Christian publishing company to copyright the intellectual property it produces. No, it is no more sinful for Christians to use copyright
laws than it is a sin for Christians to stop at red lights, obey the
speed limit, pay taxes, and comply with any other law. Copyright laws
exist to protect the property of others. And that is what this is
about: intellectual property, which, in and of itself, has inherent
worth and value. Indeed, intellectual property is the only thing about
a book that is of lasting value and worth. The paper, ink, cover and
binding materials, are all relatively inexpensive. It is the expense of
creating, producing, maintaining, preserving and distributing the
intellectual property in a book that is the greatest expense.
Intellectual property is every bit as much real property as anything we
own or possess. If we are not to use copyright laws, we similarly should
leave the keys in our car at night, keep our houses unlocked and
otherwise permit anyone, whenever they wish, to take our property, sell
it and use it as they wish.

Why does a Christian publishing company make use of copyright laws? Why
shouldn’t a Christian publishing company simply make whatever it
produces available, for free? To do that would require a source of
external funding be sought, and obtained, that would supply the
Christian publishing company with all the funding it requires to
prepare, produce, publish and distribute whatever it does. To my
knowledge, there are no such external funding sources.

Ironically, it is often organizations that are supported by donations
and grants that expect to receive the intellectual property they wish
to use for free. Pastors and congregations that have an idea to produce
something that
they believe is of benefit to their congregation, or to others,
frequently overlook the fact that the only reason they can afford to be
so generous with the intellectual property of others is because their
salaries, benefits, building, utilities and all other aspects of what
they are doing are being paid for by others. If it were not for that
fact, they would be unable to produce and distribute their materials.

Even more ironic is the fact that sometimes groups and persons
demanding that intellectual property be made available to them for free
turn around and sell whatever materials they are producing and think
nothing of using those proceeds to cover their expenses and costs, but
do not seem to realize that the intellectual property is itself one of
the expenses and costs they need to factor into whatever they are doing.

A Christian publishing company, like Concordia Publishing House, does
not receive grants from the church body that "owns" it. It is entirely
self-funding and self-supporting. Providing intellectual property, in any form, costs a lot of money.
Let’s take the Concordia edition for example. To produce it required
the labor and effort of three full-time editors, two editorial assistants, a team of copyrighters and
proofreaders, a production control person to manage the process of
publishing it, a distribution center, an inventory control system, a
warehouse department and accounting staff to collect payments, etc. It
required a place to do the work, involving a building, and all
attendant equipment, facilities and utilities. Collectively, the
production of this volume required thousands of man-hours, the expense
for which must be paid for. And, in order to continue to do this kind
of work on other projects, the intellectual property created for one
project must continue to provide revenue so other projects can be
continued and supported.

Receiving payment for the intellectual property produced by Concordia
Publishing House is the only way that it continues to be able to pursue
its task: being the publishing arm of The LCMS. Unless and until there
is an outside organization or agency that supplies the tens of millions
of dollars to keep Concordia Publishing House operating, it must make a
return on any investment made in producing and distributing
intellectual property.

But there is another aspect of this issue often overlooked. In order
for Concordia Publishing House to publish and use the copyrighted
intellectual property of others requires that it be good stewards of
its own intellectual property and demonstrate that it is in compliance
with copyright laws and takes care of its own intellectual property.
Simply put, if Concordia Publishing House were to be lax in obeying and
using federal copyright laws, we would have no ability to seek, and to
obtain, the intellectual property of others when it publishes, for
example, a new hymnal. Concordia Publishing House must be diligent
about making sure all copyright owners are paid whenever their
intellectual property is used. We must be able to demonstrate to other
copyright holders that we ourselves value our intellectual property
enough to pursue and obtain payment for it.

Therefore, it is not sinful to use the copyright provisions of federal
law. It is a protection of the intellectual property that Concordia
Publishing House is charged to produce and to manage as stewards, on
behalf of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Without copyright laws, there is no possibility
that inappropriate use of intellectual property can be prevented.
Copyright laws and payment for the use of intellectual property allows
publishing companies such as Concordia Publishing House to continue
doing their work.

We think nothing of paying for electricity when we turn
the lights in our house on. I do not hear people saying that it is sinful for the power company to requirement payment for the electricity it provides. Similarly, using intellectual property that
is not ours requires us to pay for it. Copyright laws are not sinful.

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Categories: Culture
  1. April 27th, 2008 at 16:55 | #1

    Thanks Rev. McCain for this post. We all need to be reminded what it costs to produce the works we all depend on. It is a struggle, however, to have a great idea that would be of benefit to the church at large and not be able to pursue it because of copyright.
    Another aspect of copyright protection is protection from “undesired” use.
    Another issue faced by so many congregations is that they are so accustomed to violating the law (i.e. making extra copies of sheet music for the choir) that they don’t even think that what they are doing is wrong. When they are told they can’t do it they think they are loosing something they’ve always had, when in fact it is something they have never had.
    It is difficult to be the heavy… “Uh, you know of course that you have to pay for extra copies if you want them?” “No we don’t pastor. We’ve always done this. It’s just one or two extra copies. When did this start?”
    Alas, pastor gets to be the copyright steward in the congregation, too!

  2. April 27th, 2008 at 19:51 | #2

    Thanks for the post.
    Y’all are well deserving of your wages. IP rights are one way that the Kingdom of the Left has provided to ensure that you can get those deserved wages. We do well to honor those laws, not flout them.
    That said, I do understand the mindset/desire motivating the other pastor in your example. Fortunately, there is a public domain answer available to him, to which you linked. After all, that is what you based Concordia on, nicht wahr? And that’s where CPH’s IP came into play – y’all took the public domain BoC and then added (lots of) value to it.
    All in all, it’s a fine line that I don’t envy CPH for having to walk, this line between being self-sustaining & providing a value to the members of Synod (as I recall, you’ve mentioned somewhere/sometime that most profit is derived from offering envelopes, no?). That’s an awfully small margin in which to live, but you’ve been doing it remarkably well of late. Keep up the good work!

  3. Chuck Wiese
    April 27th, 2008 at 20:56 | #3

    Come on, everyone knows that authors of books don’t need to pay for food and support their families like everybody else. Musicians don’t have to pay mortgages like the guy who works in the factory and pastors certainly never have to pay to put gas in their cars. You’re talking as if real people are involved.

  4. Jen
    April 27th, 2008 at 21:12 | #4

    I agree, copyright laws are not sinful. But, on the other hand, it does inhibit spreading the gospel. In a perfect world, all bibles would be free and there would be no such thing as production costs. ;)

  5. Ryan
    April 28th, 2008 at 08:41 | #5

    I heartily agree with intellectual copyright laws. This is 7th commandment stuff. These laws exist because of sin against authors. Unfortunately as with the case of all law, the letter often gets in the way of the spirit of the law. I’m not bothered by a copyrighted Book, Bible translation, Book of Concord, or Hymnal… but in the case of the Hymnal it is saddening to me that though my congregation has paid for all the regular liturgy/hymn licenses I cannot record (audio or video) our services to make available to shut-ins who themselves donated hymnals to the church.
    McCain: You can, in fact do this, but you have to seek, and obtain, permission from the various copyright holders of the intellectual property you wish to record and use. We can not “force” copyright holders to give you permission, and we legally can not invite you, or encourage you, to ignore copyright law.
    “A Christian publishing company, like Concordia Publishing House, does not receive grants from the church body that “owns” it. It is entirely self-funding and self-supporting.”
    The above quoted reality (along with paltry support for the Seminaries) is one major reasons I am disappointed with the LCMS’ direction in recent years.

  6. composer K
    April 28th, 2008 at 09:01 | #6

    I understand the position of both. The people who produce the material rightly need to eat/pay bills/etc. The people who use the material rightly intend to use it to spread the saving Gospel of Christ. The quandary as I see it is this: Where, along the way, did we lose the idea that these things belong to the church, instead of the CPH or any other publisher? Not to attack CPH or discount any of your arguments–I largely agree with them. But when it comes to things like the liturgy printed in the hymnal or the Holy Scriptures which we read and study and cherish, why don’t these things belong to the Church, instead of to the publisher. I guess the ultimate question is, whose intellectual property is it, anyway? Mine, God’s or the Church’s, and to whom should the profits (if there are any) go?
    Just a few thoughts, without any real answers to the problem.
    McCain Response: You are correct. They do belong to the whole Synod. That’s why the Synod has a publishing house it owns in order to provide and produce and manage these resources. Part of that management is copyrights on these materials. CPH manages the Synod’s intellectual property it is given to publish and part of that is making use of copyright law and assuring compliance with copyright laws.

  7. Susan R
    April 28th, 2008 at 10:37 | #7

    In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need Bibles or hymnals.
    We’d have everything memorized. It would be all we’d ever say or sing or hear.
    Sometimes, people just have to figure out the best uses for their money.
    It may sound like a truism, but only because it’s true: that, if you want it, you’ll find a way of getting it.
    A pearl is not that expensive, once you decide to buy it; once you decide it’s worth it. And, once you’ve bought it, there’s nothing to prevent you from giving it away. The whole pearl, that is; not just a pirated copy.

  8. Ryan
    April 28th, 2008 at 11:18 | #8

    “McCain: You can, in fact do this, but you have to seek, and obtain, permission from the various copyright holders of the intellectual property you wish to record and use. We can not “force” copyright holders to give you permission, and we legally can not invite you, or encourage you, to ignore copyright law.”
    Thank you. I am aware of this. The effort to obtain such permissions each week, overwhelming, that is why we purchase the licenses that go along with LSB. For such projects as a hymnal, and yes I’m aware its a different age copyright-wise than 1941, is where I think a Synod or Church should voluntarily afford latitude in the copyright permissions so as to maintain the spirit of the law without getting tangled in the silliness that the letter sometimes brings. Ideally the Hymnal licenses would cover all usage.
    McCain response: We did not receive permission from other copyright holders to do a blanket permission for broadcasts of the services. That is why the hymnal license can not cover all usage.
    Same with the issue of the Book of Concord. “The Concordia edition of the Book of Concord is copyrighted and thus can not be done without permission of the copyright holder.” This is correct and in the spirit of the law. The pastor should get permission for a set number of copies, perhaps even a fee… if that is necessary. We can handle this as brothers in Christ with the same mission and not as corporate lawyers.
    McCain: Take a look at the copyright page of the second edition of the Concordia Edition and note there the generous provision for using the text and copying it.
    But…”I also indicated that Concordia Publishing House would probably not grant permission because we have plans to do audio recordings of it ourselves.” How should I charitably interpret this? How in this case is the intellectual property right being upheld or the purposes of CPH and Synod being upheld? Both productions, homemade (with permission) and professional can exist and further the mission of the Church.
    McCain: You should charitably assume that CPH plans to release its own audio resources and therefore would not want others to do that. A public domain edition of the BOC is out there and available for anyone to record if they wish. CPH will sell its audio recording, again, all as part of it generating enough income to keep operating. There is a perception out there that CPH should always make its money somewhere other than the resource I want. There CPH should give it away for free or not make anything on it. But, as I’ve said before, CPH operates entirely self-sufficiently and receives not a penny from the Missouri Synod in any grants or subsidies. Entities that do receive grants and donations are often, ironically, the same entities that expect, and sometimes even demand, CPH to give them what they want for free or at little cost. It just gets weird.
    Copyright law was not designed to “outreach” but to protect (which is valid and salutary in terms of the 7th Commandment), but the result is sometimes the mission of the church and letter of the law are at odds.

  9. Pastor Steven Schlund
    April 28th, 2008 at 12:23 | #9

    The comment that I most often hear is that violating copyright laws is justifiable “for the sake of the Gospel.” What harm can it do, people say, if we photocopy a few things here and there? People often act quite indignant when publishing houses, authors, composers expect to be compensated for their work as if such persons and entities don’t care about the salvation of people and, according to some extremists, are working to send people to hell by enforcing such copyright laws.
    How short sighted such thinking is! If everyone buys one copy of sheet music, one hymnal, one Bible, etc. and starts photocopying enough for their needs, then authors and composers will soon not be able to afford to produce materials and publishing houses will not able to afford to produce such materials. Soon, there will be no materials and the salvation of many people could possibly be affected to a greater degree by the copyright violators than the copyright enforcers.
    If pastors say that copyright laws are sinful because they do a disservice to the Gospel, then such pastors should forfeit their salaries, parsonages, auto allowances, etc. Are they not also charging for the Gospel? (BTW, I have heard that position advocated by certain Christian groups who do not have professional clergy. I am guessing that brother who talked to Paul was not part of that group.)
    The saddest rationalization I heard about this was in a previous parish where improper duplication was an issue. After I explained the copyright laws, proper obedience to them, ways they are disobeyed, and the consequences of such disobedience, someone raised their hand and said, “But we are a small parish. They would never go after us.” Morality based on what you can get away with. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

  10. Christopher Enge
    April 28th, 2008 at 13:18 | #10

    Pastor McCain, this is very helpful. Coincidentally, our vicar and I were having this discussion after church yesterday.
    I’m a lawyer and this is not my area of expertise, but I do know a little bit, encountering copyright issues more and more. Copyright did change with the advent of the internet. For example, there used to be a lot more leeway in using copyrighted works in a not for profit setting. Because people were pretty much putting everything up on the internet for free (i.e. not for profit), such as movies, music, video games, etc., they had to change the law. Also, fair use has been more restricted lately than it used to be. To some extent, some of the stuff churches used to do is now illegal. At least in the churches I’m familiar with, I know how much stress “we can’t do it the way we always did it” will cause!
    Also, it is possible to get statutory damages, as opposed to only actual out of pocket damages. The minimum is $750 per violation. Suppose you post a church service with four copyrighted songs. You get 25 hits. So, by my understanding and math, that would be 4 * 25 * $750 = $75,000 liability to the copyright owners. You need a pretty deep collection plate to cover that. Better to pay the required licensing fee if you are going to do this.
    Obviously, it would look bad for Concordia to run around suing churches. However, remember that the new hymnal has songs that are not “Lutheran generated.” Some of those works may belong to people who will not hesitate to enforce their rights against anyone they perceive as thieves. That may be true of some of the artwork in Concordia publications, including the new Book of Concord.
    To get back to the Book of Concord example, it is not copyright that prevents people from sharing that book for free. If you want to do your own translation of the public domain foreign language documents and hand them out for free, you can do that. Thinking about what that would involve should persuade you of why we need copyright protection. Copyright makes it possible for the publisher to pay highly skilled people to translate the book (really, how many of us could do it) and also guarantees a supply of those people (would you learn how to translate 16th century German if you could not get paid to do it?).
    Anyway, good thoughts all around.

  11. John
    April 28th, 2008 at 16:08 | #11

    Interesting discussion. Related to this, I have a question. At my congregation, the services are broadcast (audio-only) over the local cable TV channel. This is primarily to serve shut-ins (we mail the bulletin to them in advance, and they have copies of the hymnal to follow along), but it is not restricted to shut-ins. BTW, it is a free public service of the city cable system (free to the congregation, free to the audience). We use LSB and we have the liturgy and hymn licenses to cover what we publish in the bulletin. Is this within “fair use” of the LSB and supporting materials? I guess my argument is that we are in a sense extending the sanctuary over the cable system, and thus not using the materials in a way that would deprive copyright holders of income. A person would experience the same service if they were sitting in the pew. And no admission is charged, of course. If the issue is that someone could then make a copy of what was broadcast and profit off of that, then what would prohibit someone from recording live (it’d be pretty much apples to apples with the availability of technology from a quality of recording point of view) within the sanctuary itself? Ought we then be putting statements in the bulletin which would prohibit the recording of the service? How far ought this go?
    I’m all for honoring the 7th commandment, but in this day and age, what’s considered to be “fair use” seems to be getting more and more narrowed.
    McCain response: I completely understand your situation and wish I had better news to share.
    Any broadcast of copyrighted material without the express permission of the copyright holder is prohibited by law. The TV or radio station broadcasting must, upon request, produce such permissions. Thus, the responsibility rests with them. Recently a congregation contacted us in a panic because the local access cable service was being audited for copyright violations and, yup, you guessed it, they demanded the congregation produce them. We did all we could to help them.
    Here is why CPH can not issue a blanket copyright waver for broadcast of congregational worship services: the liturgies and hymns are not all the intellectual property managed by CPH, but belong to a variety of various copyright holders. They have NOT, and did NOT grant blanket permission for their materials to be broadcast, thus, we can not grant permission. Since there is no way for us to know what materials any congregation will be broadcasting, it is not possible to grant a general waver.
    All of which is to say your congregation is taking a risk and exposing itself to potential legal liability if it broadcasts copyrighted materials with express permission of the copyright holders. The music industry is growing increasingly aggresive, along with the entertainment industry, which has gone after even local Christian congregations for broadcasting movies for free to its members on movie nights at the churches.
    All of which is to say, unfortunately, there are is no “fair use” provision that would allow you to broadcast or record and replay later your worship services. It is not something CPH is making up, but simply a matter of copyright laws today, which were nowhere nearly so stringent even ten or fifteen years ago.
    I hope this answer “helps” even if it is probably not the response you were hopeful to receive.

  12. April 29th, 2008 at 10:24 | #12

    I took a copyright course in law school (years ago), and have taught about the topic in university-level courses in “law and economics.”
    I don’t see anything at all intrinsically sinful about copyright laws, even as applied to religious materials. Consider Paul’s two, “Don’t muzzle the ox” applications in the New Testament (1 Co 9.9; 1 Tm 5.18). Presumably, more people would go to church and hear the Gospel if there wasn’t a collection to pay the pastor (even though no one’s forced to contribute — people often avoid going to church because they don’t like being asked). But a laborer is worthy of his wages.
    That being said, I also don’t think that one can merely say “Seventh Commandment,” and, voila, think that it entails modern U.S. copyright laws. Consider this alternative: If you don’t want people to share, say, a book that you wrote, then don’t sell the book — keep it yourself as you would a chair that you built. But once you sell your work, the argument could go, your property interests have ended vis-a-vis the purchaser; you’ve received your “wage” from the first purchaser, so the purchaser can do what he want with what he purchased. A carpenter, after all, doesn’t insist on dictating whom you allow to sit in the chair you purchased from him, even though such a restriction would presumably increase the demand for his labor.
    All in all, I suspect that current U.S. copyright laws are rather more protective than they need to be in terms of trading off authorial incentives to produce work and public value in using that work. (And I say that as one who annually receives a modestly plump royalty check from a publisher.)

  13. April 29th, 2008 at 18:23 | #13

    I’m all for protecting intellectual property and the copyrighting of works published by CPH.
    However, I do have one bone to pick with CPH…. the copyrighting of the prayers that are in the hymnal. I can see no good reason as to why the collects of the day, and the various prayers are copyrighted. It is not appropriate to say that they belong to CPH, the LCMS, or even the Evangelical Lutheran Church, but instead, they belong to the WHOLE church. To restrict their use I do believe is completely and utterly wrong.
    Also, there are options besides using “Copyright” and “All Rights Reserved.” Just check out http://creativecommons.org/. Wouldn’t it be great if CPH became a leader in this movement?
    McCain: Sam, I’ll respond from the general to the specific. It would be great if CPH were to receive unlimited external funding to be able to afford to give everything it does away for free. I would love that as much as anyone, and I would say, probably more than anyone else; however, that is not going to happen from our human perspective, so we must make a return on our investment in the publishing we do precisely so we can continue to do this work. So…when that wonderful day arrives that we receive unlimited funding or you hit the Lotto and donate your half-a-billion dollar win to CPH…we will continue to make a return on our investment, for reasons I’ve already explained here.
    Now, as to the prayers. I recognize that this is an emotional issue for some and while, from a certain point of view, you make a good case, one that I’ve heard before, I would simply say that it is not in fact in the best interest of the whole church for us to make all the prayers in the hymnal simply public domain. We must not forget that copyright is a form of protection of this material from those who would otherwise do harm with it, twist it, distort or misuse it who are outside our church.
    Please let me also remind you there is a very easy, convenient way for you to make all the use you want of the contents of the hymnal: Lutheran Service Builder.

  14. Mike Baker
    May 9th, 2008 at 10:45 | #14

    In a perfect world, that pastor shouldn’t charge his church a salary. He should preach the gospel for free. His salary is limiting the spread of the gospel. He should use all of that money to buy Bibles and Books of Concord for people. Clearly his salary is inhibiting the spread of the gospel.
    Clearly we do not live in a perfect world. We live in a fallen one. Laws must be put in place to ensure that people are treated justly. A pastor deserves compensation for the great work that he does. Concordia deserves compensation for the great work that they do. Copyright laws protect intelectual effort. Not only are they not sinful, they are fair and compassionate.

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