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Copyrights and wrongs

October 2020 | by Stephen Rees

Let me tell you a cautionary tale. It concerns a pastor – we’ll call him Simon – who found an envelope in the church mailbox. He opened it and read the contents with a mixture of surprise and alarm. The letter was from an agency based in France which handles copyright claims on behalf of various photo libraries. It informed him that the church had used a photograph on its website without the permission of the copyright holder. The agency informed him that the church must remove the photo from its website and pay a substantial fee for the time it had been there.

Attached to the letter was a screenshot of the photo in question. Simon recognised it immediately. Eight years earlier, he had come across the picture on the internet and included it in an invitation card he was designing for a Bible-study group. He had found the picture through Google Images and there was nothing to say that it was copyright. So he felt free to make use of it. Later the church’s webmaster had scanned the card and put it on the church website.

But now Simon was being told that the church had in effect stolen the picture – made use of it without the owner’s permission. He wondered at first whether the claim was genuine. Perhaps the letter was sent out by scammers who had checked through the website, picked a photo at random and were now writing to demand money. But after some investigation, he had to accept that that wasn’t the case. The photo was copyrighted; the agency that had sent the letter was acting on behalf of the copyright holders; the letter was perfectly genuine.

A short time later another letter arrived from the agency. The first letter hadn’t stated how much compensation the church needed to pay. This one did – a matter of eighty-odd pounds. One of the deacons contacted the agency to discuss the matter. He managed to persuade them to reduce the bill slightly – to £80. And the church paid up.

And Simon had to admit that it was fair enough. He, acting on behalf of the church, had used somebody else’s work without paying them. The photo was their intellectual property. He had taken it without their permission and used it for his own purposes. They had every right to say that he or the church should pay compensation.

But that’s not fair!

I sympathise with pastor Simon. If I were trying to defend him, I could plead some extenuating circumstances on his behalf. He didn’t know the photo was copyrighted when he downloaded it. There was nothing to say so on the website from which he took it. If it had been marked as copyright, he wouldn’t have used it. He’d have found a different photo elsewhere or taken one of his own (he’s quite a keen photographer).

It was a photo that was found on lots of different websites. It was obvious that lots of people were making use of it. The church wasn’t making any money out of it – it wasn’t a case of a profit-making company using it for commercial gain. The owner of the photo didn’t lose anything as a result of the church using it.

All those things are true. And yet it makes no difference. The fact is that someone else had planned the photo, set up the photo, and taken it. The church had no right to use it without that person’s permission. The owner had every right now to demand payment. Simon told the church the mistake he had made. And the church paid up.

I should add that since that episode, the webmaster of that church has worked through every photo on the church website, checking each one to make sure it’s copyright-free – and removing or replacing any that were dubious. I would recommend any other church to do the same. The church I pastor has already taken that step.

Do unto others…

When Simon downloaded that photo and pasted it into his design he had no pangs of conscience. I guess his assumption was that if something had been posted on the web, the owners were making it available for anyone to use in whatever way he or she saw fit. If it wasn’t marked as copyright, it was up for grabs. I guess that many of us back then, nearly a decade ago, made that assumption. I know I did.

And lots of people still do. I know that because I’ve been on the other end often enough. I find articles I’ve written copied from our church website and reproduced on lots of other websites. In fact I found one of them translated into French and posted on a Canadian website (don’t ask me how I came across it). Again, an entire series of sermons that I’d preached was downloaded from our website and posted on YouTube. Nobody had contacted myself or our webmaster to ask our permission.

Apparently, it had never occurred to the Christians who posted those sermons there that if we had wanted them on YouTube, we would have posted them there ourselves. It had never occurred to them that it would be courteous at least to contact us first. And I know of at least one instance where a Christian publisher downloaded an article I’d written from our website, printed it as a booklet – complete with ISBN number – and put it on sale.

I’m glad to say that other Christians have been more scrupulous. From time to time I receive a letter or an email from a church or a Christian organisation asking whether they can reprint in their church magazine or on their website something I’ve written. In every case I’ve gladly given permission. But such courtesy is rare. It seems that few Christians have any conscience about downloading material from the web and using it for their own purposes.

Of course, before the coming of the internet, it was already illegal – and immoral – to take someone else’s work and to use it without their permission. But the internet has made it so much easier to do. Go to YouTube or any filesharing site and you can find almost any popular music recording and thousands of complete films, still in copyright but copied illegally.

And if you have the right software, you can download them at the press of a key. It’s trouble-free and it doesn’t cost anything. Again, if I want to buy a software package for my computer, I can pay hundreds for a genuine copy, or pay peanuts for a pirated copy sold on eBay. And if I question the morality of buying the dodgy copy, I can always tell myself, ‘Well I don’t actually know that it’s an illegal copy.’

I have to remind myself that breaking or bypassing copyright is stealing, however it’s done. It is simply a breach of the 8th commandment: You shall not steal. Most people don’t think of it that way, but that’s what it is. Someone has put in the time and effort to produce something – whether it’s a book, a video, a song, a picture, a software package, or anything else. If I want to use it, it has to be done on their terms. They are entitled to charge me to use it. Some of the payment will be a payment for the time and resources they’ve put in to produce the item; some of it will be their profit. I may think that the price they charge is unreasonable. That makes no difference. I have only two options – pay it or do without.

But they’re Christians!

That applies even when the product is a ‘Christian’ product, produced by Christians. I can’t just assume that they would be happy to let me have it for free. They too are entitled to be paid for their labour: they have to earn their living just as I do. Jesus said, ‘the labourer deserves his wages’ (Luke 10:7). He was talking there about his disciples whom he sent out to preach the gospel. The fact that they were believers doing the work of the kingdom made no difference. They were still entitled to expect support from the people who benefited from their work.

Paul quoted those words of Jesus (1 Timothy 5:18) and applied them to elders in the church who ‘labour in the word and doctrine’. These elders are doing ‘spiritual work’ but Paul insists that they are still entitled to be paid for their services. Well then, the same principle must be applied to Christian writers, artists, musicans, software designers… If I want to benefit from their work, I must be prepared to pay for it.

The Bible should be free!

It applies even (or especially) to Bible translators. We use the ESV in our church services and when I’m writing an article like this I generally quote from it. Well, the people who have produced that translation, published it, printed it, marketed it, all need to be paid. If other people copy their work wholesale, the producers will not get their fair reward. So they have copyrighted their translation.

Recently (prompted by pastor Simon’s experience!), I thought I ought to check the terms of their copyright. I think they’re generous. ‘The ESV text may be quoted (in written, visual or electronic form) up to and inclusive of one thousand (1000) verses without express written permission of the publishers, providing that the verses quoted do not amount to a complete book of the Bible nor do the verses quoted account for 50 percent or more of the final text of the work in which they are quoted…’

I winced when I read that. That was me bang to rights. Some years ago I put together an evangelistic booklet made up almost entirely of Bible verses, quoted from the ESV. I only printed a few copies – it was just to give to a few unconverted friends. But I was breaking the law of the land by doing it, and I was stealing from the Christian people who had produced the ESV. I never bothered to ask their permission – I simply assumed I had the right to do it.

But there’s more. The ESV publishers go on to say that even if I’m only quoting a short passage – or a single verse – in anything I write for a for-sale publication, there must be a full acknowledgement. That applies to an article like this in a publication like Evangelical Times. Hence the acknowledgement that you’ll see at the foot of this article.

The ESV rules apply even to ephemeral church material. ‘When quotations from the ESV text are used in non-saleable media, such as church bulletins, orders or service, posters, transparencies, or similar media, a complete copyright notice is not required, but the initials (ESV) must appear at the end of the quotation’.

Well, I can no longer plead ignorance. Whatever my past failings, I have to follow these rules. Each time I write anything and quote a verse with a wording found only in the ESV, I have to do as they require. And there are similar stipulations for most other modern Bible translations.

But it’s all so complicated!

Oh dear. Staying honest and legal is hard work. It’s not just Bible translations. Copyright applies to so many things. And the law regarding copyright is different for different items. For literary, dramatic, musical, or artistic works, copyright applies for seventy years from the death of the author (or to be more exact, ‘from the end of the calendar year in which the last remaining author of the work dies’).

But even if the content of a work is no longer in copyright, the layout and appearance of a particular edition may still be under copyright: that lasts for twenty-five years from the time of publication. And take note, there are also (different) rules for sound recordings, films, broadcasts…

Again there are rules about how many copies you can make of different media. To make a single copy of a work for your own research may be regarded as ‘fair use’, while making a dozen copies as handouts for a meeting will not.

And there’s lots of false information being circulated. When I was making use of a certain college library and asked to use the photocopier, I was told that I could legitimately photocopy one chapter out of a book for research or private study. I was told that that was regarded as ‘fair use’ under copyright law.

But now I look on the UK Copyright Service website and I read this: ‘There is no simple formula or percentage that can be applied. You may have seen figures like “up to 10%” or “no more than 400 words” quoted in some publications, but such figures are at best a rough guide and can be misleading. What is acceptable will vary from one work to another. In cases that have come to trial what is clear is that it is the perceived importance of the copied content rather than simply the quantity that counts.’

For many churches, one of the biggest challenges is in the area of music. Many churches want to replace or supplement their hymnbook with a steady flow of new songs. The pastor (or worship leader) hears a hymn at a conference and is moved by it. He googles the first line and finds the words on a website. The following Sunday, it’s projected onto the screen so that the congregation can learn it. Fine, if he’s checked that he’s entitled to use it. But how many do make sure of that? How careful are you, say, to make sure that you’re respecting copyright restrictions when you’re teaching choruses to the children at the Holiday Bible Club?

Many churches make use of the services of Christian Copyright Licensing Inc. CCLI issue licences entitling churches to make use of copyrighted hymns, songs, and other creative works. The church pays an annual fee, and keeps a record of what items it has used. CCLI makes sure that copyright holders are properly compensated. But a CCLI licence doesn’t cover everything!

CCLI declares boldly on its website that its licence ‘permits churches to project or print out the words and music to the world’s great worship songs and hymns’. But of course that’s only true if the authors and composers have signed up to its scheme. Some church leaders assume that because they have a CCLI licence they’re entitled to use any hymn or song that they come across. They’re wrong. They still need to check whether the song they want to use is covered by the licence. Lots aren’t.

Frustrating, time-consuming – and God-honouring

Copyright law is complicated. And I may find complying with it frustrating and time-consuming. But that makes no difference. I am still to obey it. Read Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 if you need Bible proof of that.

Yes, I may make mistakes at times. I’m no copyright lawyer, and I may believe that something’s lawful when it’s not. I may be unable to find out when a particular hymn was written or who holds the copyright. But as far as is possible, I have to be sure that I’m acting legally and honestly.

And in most cases there’s no doubt. It is clearly illegal to hand out copies of a hymn written fifty years ago so that we can sing it in our services unless I have permission from the copyright holder to do so or we’ve bought a licence entitling us to do so. It’s illegal to take copyrighted pictures from the internet and include them in a tract or booklet. It’s illegal to photocopy an entire book that’s still in copyright.

And though it may not be illegal, I’m pretty sure that it’s immoral to watch a film on YouTube that someone else has uploaded illegally. The fact that the copyright holder hasn’t got round to having it removed is no excuse. I’m still trying to get it for free and denying its owner what’s due to him.

I have to confess that I’ve done all those things at one time or another and used the same excuses as other people. ‘Well, they’ve not lost any money, because I wouldn’t have bought it anyway.’ ‘Well, they shouldn’t have put it up there if they didn’t want people to use it.’ ‘Well, they make so much money, they don’t need to fuss over a couple of pounds.’ ‘Well, I’m going to be using it for a good purpose.’ ‘Well, everybody does it.’

None of those excuses work. Not for us as children of God and followers of the Lord Jesus. ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that by testing, you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Romans 12:2).

All Bible quotations in this article are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001.

This article first appeared in the monthly magazine of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport.

Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport