Modern copyright law was invented to encourage the creation of content by granting exclusive rights to owners of creative works, restricting the distribution and use of the content by others. This creates an artificial scarcity of the content, which preserves a higher price for the content and maximizes the revenue stream from it. This revenue stream is preserved even for resources that are given away free of charge, because the exclusive right of distribution enables the content owner to use distribution statistics in an effort to procure donations. Given that copyright law has as its objective the limiting of access to and reuse of content, it is not surprising that it is a model that has been unable to meet the need for adequate discipleship resources in the thousands of languages spoken by the global church.
I received a phone call recently from a Christian brother in South Asia. He knew that the organization I work for focuses on using mobile phones as tools for evangelism and discipleship and he was calling with a specific need. “Can you send me a library of evangelistic videos that I can use on my phone to share the Gospel with Hindus?” he asked. “I want to be able to give copies of the videos to others so they can become followers of Jesus too.”
As exciting as it was to receive a request like this, I was disappointed that I did not have any videos I could send him. “The videos exist and we have some access to them in English,” I explained, “But they are encumbered by copyright restrictions and so it is illegal for others to redistribute them without permission. We are trying to get permission, but we do not have it yet.”
There was a very long pause in the conversation. Finally, this brother in Christ said, “I do not know about this ‘copyright restrictions’ of which you speak. All I know is that I need discipleship videos on my mobile phone, but I do not have them.”
A mission leader told me of the frustration they are experiencing as they attempt to make a book available to Christians in India. This discipleship resource is available on Amazon for $10, but getting large quantities into India incurs many additional expenses, including: shipping, import fees, and in-country shipping. The difficulties continue, as the books are unlikely to make it across provincial borders in India without paying bribes to border officials. If the border officials (who are usually Hindus) discover that the books are Christian resources, they might not let them across the border at all. Republishing the books in-country is not allowed, because the owner of the copyright on that book is not interested. Merely making the book available as a digital eBook does not solve the problem either, because the license under which it is released does not permit translation or redistribution of the content.
These are not isolated cases. There are many, many more like it, from all over the world. In the introduction to this book, we encountered the Bible translation team unable to use the translation software because of the restrictions on the discipleship resources included with it. In another part of the world, a classic book on systematic theology is only legally available to believers in that country when it is imported through official means at vastly inflated prices. In another country, a large ministry is unable to use cutting-edge technology for the advance of the Kingdom because it is denied a license to make the legally-restricted discipleship resources available.
In other situations, ministry websites that collect and redistribute discipleship resources for the benefit of the global church have been shut down because they were not legally permitted to redistribute the resources. In other situations, individuals who need access to discipleship resources in their own language are legally prevented from using them as they need to for ministry, because they are unable to obtain a license that would remove the legal restrictions preventing their use of those resources. The list goes on, and on. Every day, in countless situations all over the world, the lack of legally unencumbered discipleship resources hinders the global church from growing spiritually. Stories like these are the norm—not the exception—in the world today.
What is going on? What are “copyright restrictions” anyway? And how have they become an obstacle to evangelism and the spiritual growth of the global church?
These are important questions that deserve answers. Finding the answers requires understanding how copyright law came into existence and how it works today. And doing that requires stepping back a few short years to Ireland in the 6th century and what may be the earliest documented case of copyright restrictions.
To Every Cow Belongs Her Calf
Saint Columba, the Apostle to the Picts, had a problem. He had borrowed a book—a psalter, containing several Psalms—from Saint Finnian and made a written copy of it, intending to keep the copy for his own use. Presumably, Columba needed the Psalms for his ministry and assumed there would be no problem if he copied it.
Saint Finnian, however, did not see things that way. He argued that as he owned the original, the copy also belonged to him. Columba disagreed, maintaining that since he had gone to the effort of making the copy, the copy should be his.
In an effort to resolve the conflict, King Diarmait Mac Cerbhaill imposed this ruling: “To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy.” Instead of resolving the conflict, however, the problem got worse. The dispute escalated into the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne in 561, during which many people were killed. Columba, facing the prospect of excommunication, chose instead to exile himself from Ireland.
It is ironic that what may be the first documented dispute regarding copyrights had to do with making copies of the Word of God, and that it became so intense it launched a vicious war and exiled a prominent church leader. But what may be even more ironic is that, many centuries later, we still face the same problem. Violating copyright restrictions today is less likely to lead to war and exile, but the restrictions still create impenetrable obstacles for the spiritual growth of the Church. Mattias, a speaker of the Fanson language from East Africa, recently found that out the hard way.
A missionary was working with Mattias and speakers of a number of East African languages to help them translate the Open Bible Stories project. Because of the unrestricted nature of the project, existing translations of the Bible cannot be used in it. This is because the translations of the Bible that exist in various languages are, with very few exceptions, legally restricted in such a way that they are incompatible with the total freedom of the Open Bible Stories project. (The “why” behind this problem is addressed later in this chapter.)
The missionary gave Mattias and the other translators the text of the first story in English and told them the first step was for them to write a draft of the translation in their own language. They discussed how the drafting process should go, what problems they might encounter, and the solutions to those problems. Then the translators each returned to their respective villages.
A few days later, they brought back their translation drafts. But Mattias had inadvertently run directly into the same problem that Saint Columba had run into nearly a millenia and a half earlier. The missionary gave this account:
Mattias brought his Fanson translation to class yesterday… but it wasn’t really his translation. He said that God told him he needed to copy from the Fanson Bible. I found that strange because it seemed last week that he understood why he needed to make his own translation of the English text. He himself explained how he understood me by giving the example that if I were to travel with him to his people, and if I were to speak the Gospel to them in English, he would need to translate my words in a way that kept the same true, Biblical meaning—but using words that his people would understand. He was right on. I explained to him again why we couldn’t just copy from the Fanson Bible, because of copyright restrictions, and he said he would ask God about it again.
Both Mattias’ and Saint Columba’s approach to the problem were perfectly logical. A ministry need existed that could be easily met by using a portion of the Word of God in a discipleship resource. The Word of God, in both cases, had been translated into the target language and was available. Therefore, simply making a copy of the Word of God would have met both needs perfectly. Most of us would probably agree that using the Word of God in the ways that Columba and Mattias did should be permissible. After all, isn’t that why we have the Bible in the first place—to share it with others and communicate it clearly? But, because of copyright restrictions and the restrictive licenses governing the translations, it is not that easy, as both Saint Columba and Mattias discovered.
The dictate of King Diarmait Mac Cerbhaill in the 6th century stating that copies of a book belong to the book’s owner did not turn into a large-scale codification of copyright law. The foundations of modern copyright law did not start until more than a thousand years later with the Statute of Anne in 1710.
The Statute of Anne
Gutenberg’s movable type printing press had created a problem for book publishers. It made printing books much easier and less expensive, that is true. But it also made things messier. Now any publisher could print and sell any book, creating financial problems for the established publishers.
In England, especially, publishers were feeling the pressure. Rogue “pirate publishers” from Scotland were printing the same books and exporting them to England at discounted prices. The publishers in England were not amused and looked to Parliament to pass a law that gave them exclusive control over publishing. Parliament responded by enacting the Statute of Anne in 1710 which granted the publishers’ request for exclusive “copyright” (the right to copy).
The act stated that all published works would get a copyright term of fourteen years, at which point the copyright would expire. The initial copyright term was renewable for another fourteen years if the author was still alive at the end of the first term. Existing works at the time the law was passed were given a one-time copyright of twenty-one years. But the act included a limitation to the copyright:
The Statute of Anne granted the author or “proprietor” of a book an exclusive right to print that book. In an important limitation, however, and to the horror of the booksellers, the law gave the bookseller that right for a limited term. At the end of that term, the copyright “expired,” and the work would then be free and could be published by anyone.
Two questions need to be addressed at this point. First, why did Parliament establish copyright restrictions in the Statute of Anne in the first place? Second, looking at the situation from the perspective of the publishers, why did Parliament limit the term of the copyright, rather than make it perpetual?
A primary consideration in the establishment of copyright restrictions in the Statute of Anne was to provide economic incentive for authors to write more books. Without a copyright law in place, an author who wrote a book could expect little in the way of a revenue stream from it. If any publisher could get their hands on a copy and could print any number of copies of the same work without providing financial recompense to the author, the price for the book would rapidly drop to near the cost of printing it. Market economics would see to that.
So Parliament established copyright restrictions as a means to encourage learned men to write books, because this was crucial to the overall benefit of society. Societies are dependent on knowledge and information, and writing books is an important means of making that content accessible to society as a whole. Parliament knew that if there were no financial reward for authoring books, the number of books would diminish and society as a whole would be worse off for it.
But Parliament also realized that a perpetual copyright on books would be equally damaging to society. These events were going on during the Enlightenment, and the notion that knowledge should be free was a very popular one at the time. The logic went like this: if the advance of a society is dependent on the dissemination of knowledge, and if that knowledge is contained in books, then a state-sanctioned monopoly on the printing and distribution of those books would create a hindrance to society as a whole. If publishers were given a perpetual and exclusive right to print books, then society—being built on the knowledge contained in and transmitted by those books—would be held in intellectual captivity to the economic interests of the publishers. Prices on books would remain high, minimizing the number of people who would be able to get access to the knowledge. Society as a whole would suffer from a perpetual lock on the Intellectual Property contained in those books.
So Parliament established the Statute of Anne, which attempted to get the best of both worlds. In an effort to increase the collective knowledge and richness of society, it established copyright restrictions to preserve the economic benefit to the content creators (and distributors). But in order to prevent the abuse of those restrictions and the resulting negative effect it would have on society, Parliament limited the term of copyright.
The Statute of Anne was challenged in court in 1774. The case was taken to the House of Lords, which functioned much as the U.S. Supreme Court does. The House of Lords upheld the Statute of Anne and also established the “public domain,” where works have no copyright restrictions. Legal control restricting how works in the Public Domain are used does not exist. The publishers were chagrined at the decision and predicted their pending ruin. (They did just fine, it turns out.) But the decision was hailed by the people as a great victory.
The decision of the House of Lords meant that the booksellers could no longer control how culture in England would grow and develop. Culture in England was thereafter free… in the sense that the culture and its growth would no longer be controlled by a small group of publishers. As every free market does, this free market of free culture would grow as the consumers and producers chose. English culture would develop as the many English readers chose to let it develop—chose in the books they bought and wrote; chose in the memes they repeated and endorsed. Chose in a competitive context, not a context in which the choices about what culture is available to people and how they get access to it are made by the few despite the wishes of the many.
This notion of a free culture and the balance of copyright restrictions with limited terms spread to other countries as well. The U.S. Constitution provides for copyright in Article I, Section 8. The copyright system was enacted in the U.S. in 1790 and was modeled largely on the same principles embodied in the Statute of Anne. It established U.S. copyright with a term of fourteen years with fourteen-year renewal. But, over time, the limitations of copyright were diminished and the length of copyright restrictions was gradually extended to longer periods of time.
Different countries adopted different lengths of time and different restrictions, increasing the complexity of copyright law. Copyrights were not enforceable across borders, so a work under copyright in England could be published and sold by any publisher in the United States. Something needed to be done to bring uniformity to copyright law around the world. In 1886, in Berne, Switzerland, a convention was enacted to fix the problem.
The Berne Convention
The Berne Convention has significant implications for world missions in the digital era. As Christians from many countries and legal jurisdictions create and distribute discipleship resources over the Internet, it is important to understand that the Berne Convention is generally considered to be the “law of the land” for matters of copyright law in most countries.
What It Does – The Berne Convention, formally the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, was enacted in 1886 to protect the rights of content creators internationally, as well as to provide strong minimum standards for copyright law in member states. It requires its signatories to recognize the copyright of content creators from other signatory countries in the same way as it recognizes the copyright of its own nationals.
When Copyright Happens – A content creator does not need to register the work or apply for a copyright in order for the work to be protected. This means that the “all rights reserved” of copyright law happens automatically, at the point of creation of the work—whether by publishing it, recording it, posting it online, or even saving it to a computer’s hard drive.
How Long Copyrights Last – The Berne Convention states that all works (with some exceptions) are copyrighted for at least the length of the life of the creator plus 50 years, but member states are free to provide longer terms. In 1998, U.S. copyright term was extended to the life of the author plus 70 years (or 95 years from the date of publication for corporate works).
What Rights are Reserved – The rights assigned to content creators by the Berne Convention cover every production “in the literary, scientific, and artistic domain”. There are four primary rights reserved for the content creator that are spelled out in the Convention:
Right of Translation – Content creators have the exclusive right of making and authorizing the translation of their works throughout the term of protection of their rights in the original works (Article 8).
Right of Reproduction – Content creators have the exclusive right of authorizing the reproduction of their works, in any manner or form (Article 9).
Right of Public Performance and Broadcast – Content creators have the exclusive right of authorizing the public performance and broadcast of their works (Article 11).
Right of Adaptation – Content creators have the exclusive right of authorizing adaptations, arrangements, and other alterations of their works (Article 12).
The result of the Berne Convention is that “all rights reserved” is the law regarding copyright for most countries. This means that most creative works, created in most countries by pretty much anyone in the world automatically has certain exclusive rights granted to the creator of the work at the point the work is created.
What Everyone Should Know About Copyright
So where do things stand today, after 300 years of copyright law? These are the basics of copyright law:
If you create it, you own it.
Copyright protection happens automatically, when the work is created—you do not need to register the copyright first.
If you own it, copyright grants you exclusive rights to the work: “all rights reserved.”
The rights reserved for a copyright holder include: copying & redistributing the work, creating derivatives (including translations) of the work, publicly performing or displaying the work.
You must get permission (usually as a license) to use what someone else owns.
Copyright law is remarkably similar around the world: by default, no one can legally do much of anything with someone else’s content for many decades after the owner’s death, unless they get a license from the owner (or the owner’s heirs) to do so.
Copyright Restrictions and
It is important to emphasize at this point that copyrights are not evil. Copyright law can be a very good thing, as it preserves the economic incentive for creating content, including discipleship resources. This is not an unethical approach to creating and distributing spiritual content. Those who own the copyrights on discipleship resources have every right to control their use as they see fit. In fact, up until about ten years ago, there was no viable alternative to the traditional model of “all rights reserved.” Until the invention of a means of legally and accurately “open-licensing” content, this traditional model for equipping the global church with discipleship resources was the only model available to us.
Painting the picture of an alternative, “open” model can be a complicated undertaking. Unless it is approached with care, attempts to contrast the classic “all rights reserved” approach with a new alternative can start to sound antagonistic. The intent is not to criticize the traditional approach or antagonize those who employ it. Rather, it is to objectively discuss the role of copyright law in world missions and how copyright restrictions affect discipleship resources and the global church. In subsequent chapters we will address the specifics of the “open” model.
Discipleship Resources and Legal Restrictions
As we have already seen, in virtually every country copyright automatically attaches to a creative work—a Bible translation, book, painting, photograph, etc.—at the point of creation. For instance, when a translation is made of the Bible into another language, the translation itself becomes the copyrighted possession of the translator (or translators, if it was made by a team of people). By default, a translation of the Word of God or any other discipleship resource, has all rights reserved for the translator, from the outset.
Copyright restrictions just happen, even without applying for a registered copyright. Owners of the copyrights, however, can release those restrictions by granting permission to others, usually in the form of a license. A license authorizes a use of the work (e.g. creating a translation) which would otherwise be an infringement of the copyright holder’s rights.
By releasing a discipleship resource under a license that provides broad freedoms to others who encounter it, a copyright holder can legally pre-clear others to use the content in ways that would not otherwise have been possible, apart from writing a new license for each and every use. This “open-licensing” of content can only be done by the owner of the copyright.
The vast majority of discipleship resources that could be useful to the global church are under copyright, with all rights reserved for the content owner alone. Given the critical need for open-licensed discipleship resources that the global church can use and re-use without restriction, it is important to understand why there are so few open-licensed resources available. If copyright law can (and does) limit the freedom and spiritual growth of the global church, why are legal restrictions on the Word of God and other discipleship resources maintained in the first place?
No one in ministry wants to hinder the global church from growing spiritually. But releasing discipleship resources under open licenses is not always a popular idea, often for two primary reasons. The first has to do with financial considerations, and the second has to do with concerns regarding maintaining the integrity of the content.
The creation of discipleship resources, including Bible translations, has historically been undertaken in the domain of “private production,” that is, business enterprises. Publishing houses, individual authors, churches, or Bible translation organizations operate on a business model to create, translate, and sell discipleship resources. This is a good, Biblically-sanctioned approach to ministry. It is legitimate and ethical, but it is an unavoidably costly model.
Recall from chapter 5 that “Gutenberg Economics”—the model used for the creation of content that has been the default since the invention of Gutenberg’s press—has remained largely unchanged through the last five centuries. The defining characteristic of “Gutenberg Economics” is significant investment costs. Creating a discipleship resource in a “private production” model costs a lot of money.
A Bible translation team may require many years to translate the Bible, resulting in significant costs associated with the translation, as salaries and other benefits need to be provided for the team members. When it comes time to distribute the finished work, the only option available up until recently was to distribute the finished work as a physical object such as a book. In the “paper” world of publishing physical books, there is the additional expense of paper, ink, and glue, then printing, binding, and distributing the book.
It all adds to up to a significant amount of overhead that needs to be recovered. In the case of some Bible translation organizations working in minority languages, these expenses are recovered by the financial donations of people who believe in the work of the translation organization. The completed translations are sometimes sold for a nominal fee, but the sale price is rarely expected to recover a significant part of the translation project’s expense. For some very small people groups, even if everyone in the people group purchased a translation of the Bible in their language, they could not come close to recovering the expenses that were accrued by the translation project. So the contributions of donors and foundations are the only way to recover the expenses in these cases.
In most other cases, however, recovering the expenses incurred in the creation of a discipleship resource is accomplished by selling the finished product, or receiving royalties from others licensed to distribute it. Copyright restrictions are crucial at this point, as the primary purpose of copyright law is to preserve the economic benefit of the finished work for the creator of that work. Because the copyright holder of a work has the exclusive right to publish and distribute that work, they can control the price and keep it higher than would otherwise be the case.
This does not come without trade-offs, however. Ensuring the most revenue for the copyright holder necessarily means that the distribution of a given resource will be limited. Since there is only one distribution channel (the publisher), distribution of the resource is limited to the reach of that distribution channel. Because of the legal restrictions on the resource that prevent redistribution and maintain a higher price than would otherwise be the case, not everyone who wants a copy will get a copy of the work—especially if the price is higher than what some can afford.
The market and the restrictive licenses (“all rights reserved”) afforded by copyright law attempt to maximize the profitability of a work, not the number of people reached by it. This copyright-enforced monopoly limits access to a resource and maintains an artificially higher price on it, but it is legally permitted in order to encourage the creation of additional works.
Free of Charge, But Still Restricted
Even for discipleship resources that are given away free of charge, there can be a strong incentive to not release those resources under an open license. If the resources were released under open licenses, their “competitors” in ministry would legally be able to redistribute the same discipleship resource. Instead of only being able to access the resource on one website or from one distributor, there could be dozens or even thousands of distributors of the resource. As other ministries distribute the same open-licensed discipleship resource, the owner would not necessarily have access to those numbers to include in the total. Furthermore, as people legally copy and redistribute the open-licensed resource amongst themselves, no tally of those numbers is recorded and passed on to the owner. It is likely that far more people would get access to the discipleship resource under this scenario, but there would be no way for the organization that created the resource to count the total numbers.
Who cares about numbers? Donors do. Throughout the history of donation-based ministries, donors have, understandably, wanted to see good “return on investment” for their donations. If an organization’s numbers are not very impressive, it could negatively impact the funding of their ministry. That funding might go to another organization that can show better numbers. This creates a conundrum for a ministry that wants to release copyright restrictions on a discipleship resource. By releasing it under an open license, they greatly increase the reach of that resource. But unless their donors understand that generating numbers that look impressive requires (ironically) severely limiting the reach of the resource, releasing their content under an open license might look like a bad idea from a fund-raising standpoint.
For example, imagine a scenario where an organization owns an “all rights reserved”—but free-of-charge—discipleship resource and distributes 100,000 copies of it in a year. Those numbers might look impressive to a donor, who might then be willing to provide funding for distributing another 100,000 the next year. This is a classic scenario for funding ministry. Organizations that carefully track the statistics and can show impressive numbers, increase their likelihood of receiving significant funding.
Now imagine that, instead of maintaining the “all rights reserved” on their discipleship resource—thus ensuring that they are the exclusive distribution channel—the organization releases it under an open license. By definition, an open license permits unrestricted redistribution of the content by anyone else. Now imagine that the organization distributes the resource to only two people. The next day, those two people legally distribute two copies to two other people. The following day, the four new recipients each give a copy to two others, and so on.
If this pattern continued—each new recipient giving it to two others the following day—the entire population of the earth would get a copy of that discipleship resource in a little over one month. While this is obviously a hypothetical example, it shows the explosive potential for redistribution of an open-licensed discipleship resource. When anyone can redistribute it, the potential reach of the resource is orders of magnitude greater than would otherwise be the case.
But here is the glaring problem in this example: The original organization could only show that they distributed two copies of the resource. Not thousands. Not hundreds of thousands. Not billions. Two. Never mind that the resource they released under an open license became available to every person in the world. They only have hard numbers for two, and that will not get much funding from donors operating under a traditional mindset.
This can put a ministry in a difficult position. The purpose of the organization is to build the Kingdom of God. Most would agree that they are willing to build the Kingdom of God at any cost. But it is a difficult decision to make, when releasing some of the copyright restrictions on a discipleship resource in order to not hinder the growth of the global church means the potential loss of the organization’s traditional revenue streams. Are we willing to enable the entire global church to have unrestricted access to a discipleship resource we own, even if it means we lose our funding and our organization ceases to exist?
There is a “negative example” in this context as well. One could look at it like this: “We distributed 100,000 copies of our copyrighted discipleship resource last year. Show us how many people did not get access to our discipleship resource because it was not open-licensed.”
There is, of course, no way to show how many people did not get access to a resource due to copyright restrictions. There is no way to know where it would have gone, how many people would have gained access to it, and how many lives would have been changed if it had been open-licensed. But because a ministry can show hard numbers for what did happen while it was under their complete control, the usual assumption is that this is the best way of going about meeting the need.
Although hard numbers for an open-licensed discipleship resource are impossible to predict, there are other sources upon which we can draw for evidence that releasing legal restrictions is a strategic move for any ministry or individual whose goal is building the Kingdom of Christ at any cost. The hypothetical example above shows how quickly a discipleship resource can blanket the earth when it is released from legal restrictions that prevent it. But we also have evidence from “open” projects in the secular world that have done the same.
If the only encyclopedia we had today was Britannica, it would be 32 volumes of information, available in one language. But because Wikipedia uses an open model for creating content, and the content itself is open-licensed, the encyclopedia contains millions of articles (1,600+ volumes), available in hundreds of languages.
Linux, the open-source operating system, is another example of how “open” is a model that is able to go much farther than comparative “closed” models. No one expected much from it when it began in 1991 as a hobby built by a handful of computer hackers. But because it was released under an open license so that anyone could use, improve, and redistribute it, Linux has become an irreplaceable component in computing today—from smartphones to Internet servers to supercomputers.
There may not be “hard facts” for how much more effective a discipleship resource will be if it is released under an open license. But the indicators from other open projects suggest that an open-licensed discipleship resource will almost certainly be used by more people, in more places, for more ministry, than would otherwise be the case.
“The Worker Is Worthy of His Wages”
The “business enterprise” model for the creation and sale of discipleship resources is both sanctioned by governments and supported in Scripture. Jesus, when sending out his disciples for ministry, affirmed that material recompense for spiritual work is right.
Remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they offer, for the worker is worthy of his wages. —Luke 10:7a
Paul references the Old Testament principle of not muzzling an ox while it treads out the grain (Deuteronomy 25:4) in his affirmation that financial reward is appropriate for those who work in ministry.
The elders who are good leaders should be considered worthy of an ample honorarium, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says: 'Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,' and, 'the worker is worthy of his wages.' —1 Timothy 5:18
To the church in Corinth, Paul made the matter explicitly clear. Those who work in the ministry “sowing spiritual things” have the right to “reap material things” as a result.
My defense to those who examine me is this: Don’t we have the right to eat and drink?…Who ever goes to war at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its fruit? Or who shepherds a flock and does not drink the milk from the flock? Am I saying this from a human perspective? Doesn’t the law also say the same thing? For it is written in the law of Moses, 'Do not muzzle an ox while it treads out grain.' Is God really concerned with oxen? Or isn’t He really saying it for us? Yes, this is written for us, because he who plows ought to plow in hope, and he who threshes should do so in hope of sharing the crop. If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it too much if we reap material benefits from you? If others have this right to receive benefits from you, don’t we even more? …Don’t you know that those who perform the temple services eat the food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the offerings of the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should earn their living by the gospel. —1 Corinthians 9:3,7-12,13-14, emphasis added
It is clear from Scripture that receiving financial recompense for spiritual work is not only permitted, it is endorsed as a right. Those who preach the gospel have the right to earn their living by the gospel, plain and simple. These same principles also apply to those who create discipleship resources that explain and teach the Word of God. They have a biblically-sanctioned right to leverage their exclusive rights afforded to them by copyright law in order to acquire for themselves financial reward for their work in creating discipleship resources. There is no Biblical mandate that suggests they should release a discipleship resource under an open license, or that they are in the wrong if they do not. They may choose to do so voluntarily, but there is no Scriptural directive to do so.
Preserving the Integrity of the Word
A second common motivation for not releasing discipleship resources under open licenses has to do with concern for the integrity of the discipleship resource. The concern is that releasing a discipleship resource under an open license that permits translation and re-use of the work by anyone, for any purpose, without needing to specifically ask permission first may be granting a license for the perversion of the original work and propagation of bad doctrine. It conjures up images of cult leaders working feverishly to translate a Christian book into another language in a corrupt and twisted manner that perverts the Gospel and results in the author’s name being associated with a heretical resource.
This would clearly be an undesirable development, and there is a risk that this kind of thing could happen to discipleship resources. But it is crucial to understand that this risk is introduced at the point the content is available in a digital format, not when it is released under an open license. The assumption that content available in a digital format is somehow immune to abuse because it is under copyright does not reflect reality. Bad things happen to copyright-restricted content all the time. This is one of the unavoidable realities of life in the digital era.
A well-known Christian organization ran into this problem with a book that had been written by the prominent leader of the organization. They discovered that, without their authorization, someone in the Middle East had translated the book into Arabic. But, to their horror, they found that the translation was of very poor quality, perverted the author’s intent in numerous places, and even introduced verses from the Qu’ran into the text—something the author would never have done.
So their concern that open-licensed discipleship resources might invite such problems was understandable. It also missed a fundamental point: their book that had been corrupted by someone else was under copyright. Copyright law did not prevent a bad thing from happening to it, nor could it. They were trusting that copyright law would hinder the “bad guys” from doing bad things, but it did not.
There is another crucial observation in all of this. This organization only found out about the unauthorized translation of their book into Arabic because someone told them about it. Which raises some questions. How long did it take for them to find out about it? How long had the translation of the book been in circulation before they discovered it? What if this was not the only translation of the book into Arabic? What if this was not the only translation of the book into any other language? How long will it be before they discover those translations? What if the book has already been translated into a hundred other languages and they have not yet discovered it? Content owners may think that all is well, and their discipleship resource is safe because it is under copyright. But just because they are unaware of any nefarious use of it, does not mean it has not already happened, in dozens of languages, all over the world.
These questions underline a key point: copyright law was invented in, and thus reflects, the “paper” era, not the digital era. In the “paper” era, the cost associated with reprinting and redistributing someone else’s book was so significant that only established printers (later, publishers) could do it on a large scale. Thus, it limited the potential number of competitors to only the publishing houses able to undertake it. These publishers were well-known, with clear communication channels and centralized infrastructure. Copyright law in this context made it relatively easy to draw the legal lines between the publishing companies and the content owned by each.
With the advent of the digital age, however, the rules changed. Now, anyone can publish. Mass distribution of a resource is easy to do and costs virtually nothing. (Just ask the Hollywood producers whose movies are pirated in every country of the world, over online file-sharing networks and in pirated DVDs.) In the ministry realm, the same holds true. Anyone can get access to any digital resource online and translate it—today—without ever asking permission. They can easily email PDFs of the translated content to others, or even host them on their own website, in their own language. They can even create poor-quality translations of the Bible and distribute them all over the Internet.
The point is this: bad things happen to the Word of God and other discipleship resources all the time. Copyright restrictions on a discipleship resource may be a deterrent that prevents publishers and other established entities from reproducing and mass-distributing a work (e.g. a book, an evangelistic video, etc.). Copyright law gives the copyright holder the opportunity to take someone to court who violates their rights. But copyright restrictions do not prevent bad things from happening to good content. “Bad guys” will continue to do bad things with good content regardless of whether or not it is under copyright. There is simply no way to patrol what every person in every language of the world is doing with your good content in an effort to prevent bad things from happening to it.
Copyright law is a false hope for preventing the misuse of good content. Copyrights do tend to restrict the use of content, but the people who are limited by copyright law are often the “good guys”—the law-abiding body of Christ willing and able to work together to translate and use the discipleship resources to complete the task of world missions.
Copyright Law and World Missions
The mission of the Church is to make disciples of all people groups. We have already established that making disciples includes equipping the disciples with the Word of God and additional discipleship resources that teach them the Word of God in depth. For these resources to be useful and understood with clarity, they must be translated into the disciple’s language and adapted for accurate communication in their culture.
We have seen that the traditional approach to translation of discipleship resources involves a “give them a fish” model and is extremely costly and time-consuming. Given the amount of time it takes to translate discipleship resources into a few hundred languages, it is unrealistic to expect that this approach to translation is a model capable of equipping believers in the nearly 7,000 living languages in the world today in a timely manner. The proposed solution is for the global church to openly collaborate in the creation and translation of discipleship resources in every language of the world. We have seen that the global church is on the rise and is ready to join in, using the technology that is becoming increasingly common in even the farthest corners of the globe.
This brings us to the issue of copyright restrictions on discipleship resources. Copyright law, as we have seen, is designed specifically to limit the distribution and reuse of a work by granting exclusive rights to the owner that prevent others from copying and redistributing the work without the owner’s permission. The function of copyright law is not to facilitate getting the work to every person possible. Instead, it tends to make the work artificially “scarce,” thus increasing the content owner’s economic benefit from it.
It should come as no surprise, then, that this classic model for creating, translating, and distributing discipleship resources has only been able to make a relatively small number of resources available in a relatively small number of languages. Up until recently, ministry organizations have necessarily needed to use an expensive model (private production) designed to maximize revenue from the content (through contrived scarcity) as a means to disseminate discipleship resources. Using this classic model to reach every language in the world with adequate discipleship resources is inefficient, because that is not the purpose for which the model was created.
The classic, “all rights reserved” model for ministry creates a challenge for the global church. It maintains a complicated legal framework that is nearly impossible for much of the global church to overcome. Because of this, the global church is hindered from translating and redistributing the discipleship resources they need for spiritual maturity. The vast majority of discipleship resources are in a tiny handful of some of the world’s most common languages, especially English. These resources could be of tremendous use to the global church if they were translated into the thousands of languages they speak.
But most of these resources are unavailable to them, out of their reach. This is the “walled garden” of discipleship resources, and much, if not most, of the global church is outside the wall. Hundreds of millions of believers, speaking thousands of languages are prevented from translating and using the resources, although they desperately need them. These believers continue to wait for discipleship resources to be translated into their languages, but the length and expense of traditional translation projects are prohibitive. Only a handful of larger languages are served, and the rest of the global church drags on in their spiritual famine.
We Cannot Have It Both Ways
What can Christian mission organizations learn from a global summit on sustainable development? At first glance, it would seem the two have little in common. The outcome of a recent summit, however, illustrates a principle for world missions that is both clear and relevant for ministry in the 21st century. The principle is: in the realm of Intellectual Property, we cannot have it both ways.
Rio+20 (formally, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development), was held in 2012 in the Brazilian coastal city of Rio de Janeiro. The purpose of the conference was to attempt to reconcile the economic and environmental goals of the global community. Traditional means of achieving a country’s economic goals (like growing its economy and developing needed infrastructure) can tend to have an adverse effect on the environment. Accomplishing both the economic and environmental goals requires modern technology. And this is where the tension arises.
Much of the technology needed to enable sustainable economic development has already been invented—by some of the most developed countries. The technology needed by poorer developing countries is the Intellectual Property of the wealthiest countries, and that Intellectual Property is very valuable. Developing countries lack the capital and research base to invent viable technologies for themselves—only those in the developed world have the ability to do so. It comes down to this: those in the developing world need the technology owned by those in the developed world, because they do not have the means to create or acquire it for themselves in other ways.
This story is relevant to world missions because it so clearly illustrates how, at the conceptual level, the Christian world faces a similar conundrum. The discipleship resources that hundreds of millions of believers around the world could use to foster their spiritual development have already been created—by believers from some of the most affluent countries. The resources (Intellectual Property) are usually under copyright, with “all rights reserved” for the content owner. These restrictions prevent the global church from translating, adapting, redistributing, and using the content as needed for their spiritual growth. The global church needs discipleship resources that are owned by other believers, because they do not have the means to create or acquire the resources for themselves in other ways. We can either continue to leverage the restrictions afforded by copyright law and limit what others can do with our discipleship resources, or we can work together as a global church to widely distribute discipleship resources in every language, for effective discipleship in every people group. We cannot have it both ways.
It comes down to this question: Will the “haves” give up some of the exclusive rights to their Intellectual Property for the good of the “have-nots?” Interestingly, for the attendees of the Rio+20 summit, the answer to that question was made abundantly clear. The developing countries attending the summit were hoping the summit would facilitate the transfer of the technology needed for the sustainable development of their economies, thus achieving both the overarching economic and environmental objectives.
Before the conference even began, however, the president of the Intellectual Property Owners Association (IPO) made a statement to the effect that a transfer of technology like the kind hoped for by developing countries would not be an option, as it would negatively impact the bottom line of the owners of the technology in developed countries. That is, their choice was to leverage the significant economic value of the Intellectual Property contained in the technology needed by the developing world, rather than meet the needs of the developing world at any cost. One commentator put it this way:
The IPO has no interest in helping developing countries transition to a more sustainable economy if it means sacrificing valuable IPR. And the IPO’s chilly message set the tone for what many pundits and participants considered a disappointing Rio+20 conference yielding few substantive results.
To be sure, the inventors of these technologies have every right to enjoy the exclusive rights afforded to them as owners of their own Intellectual Property. They are under no obligation to release it free of charge so that anyone else can use the Intellectual Property without restrictions. But it is impossible, as the saying goes, to “have one’s cake and eat it, too.” Choosing one outcome (maximum financial recompense) necessarily rejects the other outcome (sustainable development for every country at the lowest possible cost). Unless those with the means to create what is needed are willing to sacrificially share of their own Intellectual Property, the developing world is shut out from that which would meet their needs.
In the realm of world missions, sustainable economic development is not the focus. Equipping the global church in every people group and language with discipleship resources to foster their spiritual growth is (or should be) a primary focus. Those who own the rights to discipleship resources—translations of the Bible and resources built on them—are in the same position as the owners of “green” technology in the developed world. People groups in the developing world need what they own and cannot spontaneously generate it for themselves. They often do not have the same opportunities for education and theological development in their own countries that could give rise to such resources.
Merely giving them “free of charge” (but still “all rights reserved”) discipleship resources also does not solve the problem. In the realm of world missions, effectiveness of discipleship resources is all about one thing: derivatives. Distribution of digital content is easy. Getting permission to make derivatives can often be as unlikely as winning the lottery.
Without the freedom to make content effective and build on it in their own language (i.e. create derivatives), “free of charge” discipleship resources are of limited good to the vast majority of the global church. What they need is the legal freedom to translate, adapt, build on, revise, redistribute, and use the resources as though they were their own, without restriction. Until they are given permission, the “all rights reserved” of existing discipleship resources legally prevents them from doing any of this.
Free + Freed
You have seen it on websites all over the Internet: Free! Download this free ebook! Watch the free video! Free is great and a necessary first step for equipping the global church. But merely giving some discipleship resources in English away free of charge is not a global missions strategy. Only a small handful of believers outside of non-English-speaking countries can even understand them. They are about as effective for the majority of the global church as a Bible translation in Arabic would be to the average reader of English.
Making discipleship resources available free of charge is a good notion, but it does not provide what the global church actually needs: legal freedom to translate, adapt, redistribute, and use the resources effectively in their own languages and cultures. What the global church needs is discipleship resources that are both free (of charge) + (legally) freed.
This is where things start to get sticky. There are only two ways for the global church to get the legal freedom they need to translate a discipleship resource for effective use in their own language: either the resource is released proactively under an open-license so that they can legally translate and use it immediately, or they need to ask permission of the copyright holder first. Some of the most potentially effective discipleship resources are of significant value to the entities that own the copyrights on them. Consequently, the idea of releasing such resources under open licenses that gives everyone free and legally unrestricted access to them is often not immediately appealing. So the global church is left with one option: ask for permission. But this is not as straightforward as it might seem.
Ask, But You Are Unlikely to Receive
I recently had a conversation with a woman who works in the publishing department of a large mission organization. She mentioned that she had received a phone call that morning from a contact in a very large Christian publishing house. She told me:
I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. He said he was calling about a request we had made to use one of their resources in one of our publications. But I did not remember ever having contacted them. So I finished the phone call, then went and checked the records. Sure enough, I had contacted them—nine months before. We had wanted to use a small part of one of their publications on a page in a calendar we were making and this was the first I had heard back from them. We had finished the calendar months before—without their content in it, because we had not heard back from them.
Nine months. That long of a delay is not uncommon for matters of intellectual property in a world missions context. When requesting permission to use a resource that is of significant value the wait time may even be longer. But consider the situation in this story. Both parties were in the United States, maybe even in the same timezone, having a shared culture, being native speakers of the same language, in direct phone contact, possibly on a first-name basis, with immediate email contact and possibly video chat at a moment’s notice. They also probably both had legal counsel with whom they could confer at any time. And it took nine months for the request to be answered.
Realistically, how long do you think it will take for a Christian from a village in the Sudan or northern India or anywhere else in the world to get a response, if at all? The person making the request would be on the other side of the world from the copyright holder, they might not speak the same language, their cultures are vastly different, they may not have phone contact, they probably would not know each other’s names, email might not be an option, much less video chat. It is unlikely that they would have legal counsel to help them through the process, and acquiring such counsel could be extremely expensive. Not only that, the number of steps that need to be taken just to get access to use a discipleship resource is staggering. For permission to be granted, each of the following questions (at a minimum, there may be more depending on the context) needs to be answered with a “yes”:
Can I identify the copyright holder?
Do I know how to contact them?
Can I communicate in their language?
Am I able to contact the copyright holder?
Do I have the Intellectual Property knowledge to request permission?
If all these steps can be accomplished, then the request needs to be written and sent to the copyright holder. At this point, there is an extreme time lapse of months or years before proceeding.
Do I get a response?
Did they understand my request?
Do I understand their contract?
Can I comply with the contract?
Can I afford the terms of the contract?
Can the resource be used without translation (which would require making a derivative work)?
Can the resource be used without adaptation (also a derivative work)?
Can I provide an independent back-translation?
Can I track the translation, with forms for every participant?
Can I comply with the publisher’s contract requirements?
Do I know who owns the translation?
Can I supply the properly completed copyright assignments for the derivative works?
Can I provide the finished product to the author?
If all these answers are “yes”, then the resource can be legally used. But there is one more catch: what if I discover that I need to use the resource in ways that exceed the original permissions of the contract? Sometime during the translation process, I may have encountered new needs that require new permissions. I may have asked for permission to translate and print the finished translation of the discipleship resource, but what if I now realize I need permission to embed the translation into a mobile phone application, or turn it into a video? If additional permissions are needed, the process begins again from step 5, “Do I have the Intellectual Property knowledge to request permission?”
Untangling the complexity would require more financial resources than could be expected to be recovered by the sale of the translated discipleship resources in other languages. The whole process would likely grind to a halt and collapse in on itself. Clearly, expecting the global church to navigate the legal waters of proactively contacting the copyright holder of a discipleship resource and requesting permission to use their discipleship resource is unrealistic. The process is massively complicated, costly, time-consuming, and unsustainable. This is especially the case if we are serious about meeting the need for adequate discipleship resources in every language of the world.
So it is no wonder that the global church is at an impasse. They cannot be expected to start from scratch and recreate the discipleship resources they need in each language. But the discipleship resources they could use as a starting point for translation and creation of new resources are off-limits to them, existing in a handful of languages that many, often most, of the global church does not speak. These believers are ready to help with the translation of these resources into their own languages, but they are legally prevented from doing so. Requesting permission to use the resources is not an option for the vast majority of the global church.
The only option available to the global church outside the walled garden is to wait and hope that the resources are proactively released by the copyright holders under open licenses that permit them to legally translate, adapt, redistribute, and use the resources for their spiritual growth. The burden for equipping the global church with discipleship resources rests on those who have discipleship resources and their willingness to release their content from copyright restrictions under an open license that permits the global church to use it without restriction. Instead of “giving them a fish” of a single translated discipleship resource, this is “teaching them to fish” and giving them the fishing rod, line, hook, and bait so they can fish.
Along these lines, there is another thing to consider. All discipleship resources are, by definition, built on the Word of God. They explain and apply the Word in the cultural context of the speakers of the language in which it is translated. Because of this foundational nature of the Word of God, there is an urgent need for open-licensed translations of the Bible in every language.
This presents a problem, because Bible translations tend to be among the most legally restricted discipleship resources, creating a single point of failure for the spiritual growth of the global church. When the Word of God is restricted, all the discipleship resources on which it is built are restricted as well.