May 3, 2012

Do the Right Thing!

Churches often fail to observe copyright laws, or even the basics of courtesy. We have this unfortunate habit of thinking that just because it is "for the church" it is OK if I make a few copies of this or that. So, Sunday School teachers photocopy lesson plans and download photographs or craft designs from the web. The children's chapel uses a little photocopied song book someone assembled a few years ago. The youth leaders play a movie they rented for the youth group. The choir director makes photocopies of the anthem. The church's website is has a music piece playing in the background. The newsletter features photographs from the internet or scanned in and used without the photographer's permission. And I can not tell you how often I visit a church that has all of the hymns printed in the bulletin (sometimes even with music) and nothing about a license that gives them permission to do so. That day's bulletin alone puts their church at risk of $400,000+ in fines! In a typical church with several of these violations, the weekly toll could easily be close to a million dollars a week! Don't think anyone will sue a a church? Think again....

But more important than preventing lawsuits is the need for us to just "do the right thing." Following copyright laws is important because we are modeling behavior that is right. And it is a justice issue--the creators of those materials deserve to be compensated for their labor, just like the rest of us are compensated for ours. When we use materials without payment, we are literally stealing from writers, artists and musicians. Not something the church should be doing!

It is also important to recognize that free isn't free. Someone, somewhere invested time and skill to create that work you want to copy. It cost something to create it. Some people, for whatever reason, want to share their creation with the world. Usually they can afford to do so because they have a job or don't need the money. But many people don't have a job--their creation is their livelihood. And when you fail to pay for their creation, they don't get paid. Eventually that suppresses creativity or restricts it to those who have enough money to give it away. A license fee is small for a church budget but it can mean the difference between being able to create more or having to stop creating so you can earn enough to eat.

This is a day and age when many of us play fast and loose with intellectual property rights. The computer and internet make it extremely easy to "cut and paste" and print. It is faster and cheaper than doing the right thing. But it isn't right and it sends the wrong message to ourselves and to our members. If we can't be trusted in little things, how can we be trusted in the bigger things? If we "bend the rules" here, why should anyone listen to us when we speak about being obedient to God or advocate for treating people fairly or ask people to do the right thing in other aspects of life?

LeaderResources has been doing electronic publishing for over a decade so we have invested in teaching churches about how to observe copyright laws and do the right thing while still having the ability to "make copies." We've complied a document, "Copyright Guidelines for Churches" to help church leaders understand how the copyright law applies to us. We aren't lawyers and this isn't a definitive work--but it does provide basic information and guidelines. You can download it for free at: I encourage you to make copies of it (we give you permission to do that!) and share it with your church leaders so they know what they can and can not do.

I also encourage you to have a dialogue about why we do this. It isn't just about following the law. It's about compensating creators fairly. It's about empowering creators to create more great things for us to use. And it is about doing the right thing.