I have long been a fan of the open source philosophy along with others like [Creative Commons](http://creativecommons.org). I like the way they allow you to distribute things in a fair manner whilst still protecting the author or the work to the extent they prefer. Much better than the restrictive and prohibitive copyright licences used so often today. This blog is distributed under a Creative commons licence. Basically you can distribute it without penalty or charge as long as you give others the same rights.
Recently it struck me how much the Christian viewpoint is left unhindered by such licences and how much it is hindered and impinged by copyright and publishing law.
Take for example a worship or praise song. In days of old, hymns were written by men and women for the use of all, without penalty, and the for the glory of God. They may have been published or distributed by word of mouth but rarely was there a restriction on their use. In short the aim of the author was to glorify God and they saw no reduction of this aim by allowing as many people as possible to freely and fairly use their works to this end.
These days? Somebody writes a song, releases it on a CD and then releases the sheet music under a copyright licence. Suddenly churches using these songs – to glorify God – are left with a minefield of legalese to overcome so that they are not “robbing” the author of their livlihood. Payments to copyright agencies (aren’t these just protection rackets?) abound on the off chance that you may use a song that was (shock) written to be used in that way.
In short, in 1850 somebody could write a hymn and churches could use it. Somebody hearing it in one church could introduce it to another without breaking the law. These days, you hear a song in one church, ask the musician for a copy of the sheet music and, if it is handed over, both of you are breaking the law. Result? songs that are written to worship God are not allowed to do so because it would impinge on the “rights” of the author. The same author who wrote the song to worship God! What is really meant by “rights” is “income”. If no copyright is placed on the music, or so the philosiphy goes, then you and I could distribute and sell said music and rob the author of their livlihood from selling the stuff they’ve written.
Imagine if people like Hillsongs, Survivor and Kingsway published their sheet music under a Creative Commons licence?
You would be freely allowed to copy and distribute the sheet music but not sell it. So the song is used for it’s intended purpose (worshipping God) by many more churches, none of whom are breaking the law by doing so, none of whom are paying a licence fee just because they used a song in it’s indended purpose. But only the original composer/publisher may sell the song. This means a CD with it on continues to earn the composer a royalty.
Transpose this to Bibles. There are some great modern translation of the Bible. Some of you may not like them, everyone has their favourites. There are also some great computer programs to help us read and study the bible. But unless someone pays a licence then this software often only includes public domain translations like the KJV. “But if you want to use it you should pay for it” you say. fair enough but let’s take the New Century Version for example (the same applies to other versions).
I own two paper copies of the NCV in differing sizes and with differing extra bits. I also own a Palm Pilot PDA with some bible software on it. In order for me to read the NCV on my Palm Pilot I must buy another version of it. Okay so far I’m with this, seems fair. But I also own desktop bible software which doesn’t come with the NCV. I think it’s fair usage for me to want to use the same elcetronic version in two programs but only one at a time. I’ve bought the Bible (a few times now) – the translators, publishers et al have been rewarded for their work – I just want to use it on two programs. To me, this is like reading it in two different chairs. But no I would have to either wait for the software company to bring out an NCV module and then buy that one or use differing translations in differing places.
Again, suppose I have an electronic copy of a bible. I come across a friend who cannot afford one but would like one. Or I come across a friend who – not being a Christian – would like to look into the Bible on a try before you buy-in basis. I could tell both these people to go buy a modern version but doesn’t it come across as more gracious for me to give them a copy? Wouldn’t it more in the spirit of Christ for me to not expect them to pay? “So give them yours” you say – can’t it’s licenced to me and not transferrable. “Buy them one” you say – can’t because it’s no longer available for their operating system. “Copy yours – the publisher won’t mind” – no they may not mind (mostly because they wouldn’t know) but it is still illegal to do this – what does that tell my friends?
If digital versions of Bibles used Creative Commons licences then I could freely use it on any software I liked and pass it to friends for their use. At the same time I would not be allowed to sell it – only if the publisher authorises it.
“So” you’re thinking, “if the publishers use Creative Commons licences and allow you to give their stuff away – why would anyone buy them? They still lose money.”
Well, no they don’t the paper versions are still under copyright law. The recorded version of songs are also still under copyright and publishing law. And in fact if someone is given an electronic copy of a particular translation and uses it regularly, it would make sense to assume that when it comes to buying their own paper version they would plumb for the same translation.
[Some authors](http://craphound.com/down/download.php) have found that when they published their books under a Creative commons licence electronically, sales of the paper version have not dropped but been enhanced by the free distribution of the electronic one.
Okay so here’s the point of this post…
It strikes me that a major aim of Christians is to become more Christ like. This would be the Christ who said “Freely you have received, freely give” then and who turned the tables on the temple sellers for making unfair profits from those who simply wanted to follow God’s way?
Where would Christianity be today if the gospel and epistle writers had prohibited copying and distribution of their writings without royalty payments? Where would we be today had people like [John Wycliffe](http://http//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wycliffe) and [William Tyndale](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyndale) had slapped copyright all over their translation or if [Charles Wesley](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Wesley) or [John Newton](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Newton) had done the same with their hymns?
What would have happened? Christianity would have died along with the hope of humankind that it brings.
Perhaps you’re thinking that those people weren’t in this age, they didn’t need to be have been concerned about the “wrong” sorts of people corrupting their work from it’s purpose. Perhaps it’s true that they didn’t have to earn a living from their works. Perhaps these are true but most of them worked in conditions far less privielged than we do today. Most of them could have been killed if the “wrong” people got their hands on their work. Yet they did that work and they did for the higher purpose we all serve – the Kingdom of heaven.
So here’s a wake up call to the Christian publishers, Bible houses, Song composers and authors of today:
Think about why you do that work? If it’s for God’s glory and the furtherance of the God’s kingdom then are you not restricting the very purpose of that work by restricting the fair usage of it by others?
Christianity is about risks – take one with the work you do for him and see if God likes it.