Is it Sinful to Use Copyright Laws?
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
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
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.