Christianity and Copyright (3): The Ethical Problem
The Blog of Nathan D. Smith

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that had been kept secret for long ages, but now is disclosed, and through the prophetic scriptures has been made known to all the nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be glory forever! Amen.

You may copy and distribute up to five (5) paragraphs of this epistle without obtaining permission from the author. To obtain a license to distribute this epistle in its entirety, please contact Paul, care of Silvanus.

~ Romans 16:25-28, NET Bible

The above is absurd, of course. The biblical authors never placed copy restrictions on their text. Even if the modern notion of copyright had existed when the various books of the Bible were composed, the authors would not have used their rights to restrict the copy and distribution of their works. The practice in the early church was to freely and widely share what was written amongst believers.

Moreover, the scriptures are God's Word and the canon of the Christian Church. It is presumptuous for modern scholars to place restrictions on how those texts may be copied. Why should they have the right to have a say on such matters? The spread of the Bible goes hand-in-glove with the spread of the gospel. Since the Bible is integral (if not essential) to Christian life, I believe it is imperative for Christians to encourage its spread (and translation), and not to restrict it at all. I also believe that this ethical judgment is intuitive for Christians.

So why do Bible publishers today use copyrights to restrict the copy and distribution of Bible texts? To raise money. I have not found any other justification. Raising money is not a bad thing. Biblical scholarship can be expensive, so placing copyright restrictions on the texts has been an effective way to monetize the output of such scholarship. "The worker is worthy of his wages."

The ethical question is: does the right of a worker to receive his wages via copyright override the right of believers to copy and distribute the scriptures? I say no. The importance of sharing the scriptures amongst the Christian community far outweighs the utility of raising funds via copyright. The good news is that there are plenty of ways for the worker to receive his wages nonetheless.

Sadly the ethical problem with using copyright to restrict the distribution of the Bible seems to be lost on publishers. For example, when the German Bible Society's FAQ page asks, "How can the Word of God be copyright protected?", their answer is essentially "it is perfectly legal to do so." We as Christians need to aspire to a moral standard beyond the laws of the secular state.

So how should works of Christian scholarship be financed since it is unethical to use copyright restrictions to that end? As it turns out, there is more than one way to raise money for Christian scholarship. There are even ways to allow free sharing while reaping royalties only from commercial sale of the scriptures. Also, there is a growing trend among publishers to use more permissive licenses for Bible works. I will examine these prospects in my next post on the subject.

Date: 2011-04-06 12:44