The Church needs Creative Commons

This post is more than 15 years old.

Posted at 13:00 on 04 June 2008

If you've ever had anything to do with modern church music, chances are you'll have come across an organisation called Christian Copyright Licensing International. Their website has the strap line "encouraging the spirit of worship" and the idea is that rather than paying royalties to individual songwriters and their agents, you just pay one licence fee and that lets you sing whatever you like as often as you like in your church for a whole year. It helps with administration and makes it easier for your church to operate in righteousness, so it saves some time and hassle, though maybe not money. It's a vast improvement over what we had in the early 80s with songbooks like this one that had a dozen or so entries that said "This song has been omitted for copyright reasons."

However, it only covers church services, so if you are organising evangelistic events, or conventions like Faith Camp, or making your own worship album, or streaming your meetings live over the Internet, or making a mashup for something or other, or even playing tracks from your favourite Christian albums in a coffee shop, you need to go through the rigmarole of getting whatever other additional licences you need. And of course, all this costs more in terms of both money and time, and what might otherwise only take a couple of days can end up taking several weeks or even months while you're waiting for permission to come through -- if it comes through at all.

Now compare this "Christian" approach to copyright with the concepts that developers and geeks have come up with. I am talking, of course, about open source and Creative Commons.

If you've never heard of Creative Commons, you may want to take a look at this video, which explains it very simply and clearly:

The idea is for copyright owners to allow greater freedom and flexibility in what is done with their own intellectual property. Take my blog for example. I could put a notice on it saying you're not allowed to copy it without paying me a fat fee, period, but I have deliberately chosen not to do so. Instead, I've released it under a licence that lets you reproduce it wherever you like as long as you aren't doing so for profit, you acknowledge me as the original author, and if you make a derivative work, you grant others the same rights. You don't even have to ask me -- though it would of course be nice to know. The Creative Commons website allows you to choose a licence tailored to your needs from several different options.

The entire concept could have been lifted straight out of the New Testament, yet Christianity has had little involvement in it. It is a practical outworking of Jesus' words, "Freely you have received, freely give" -- indeed, in recent years, Bram Cohen, who is pretty much a poster child of the whole free content movement, made "Give and ye shall receive" the slogan for Bittorrent. It is a slight rewording of Luke 6:38.

Or what about Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 2:17? "Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God."

So where on earth is the Body of Christ in all of this? Why are we dragging our heels when we should be forging ahead?

Worship leaders, church musicians and Christian authors have a lot in common with software developers such as myself. We tend to be very creative individuals, and what we do is often very much a labour of love. We write songs, books, blogs or computer code even if we're not getting paid for it, and while it is nice to earn something from it, that is only a secondary consideration.

Yet while there are some people producing resources such as books, Bible studies and worship songs who have taken the concept of Creative Commons on board, they are very much on the fringes. Most, if not all, widely used Christian resources -- including most modern translations of the Bible and nearly all songs that have a circulation beyond the songwriter's home church -- are only made available under restrictive commercial licences.

Is this encouraging the spirit of worship, or the spirit of mammon?

I would love to see some notable Christian songwriters distributing their compositions under licences similar to Creative Commons. I would love to see major ministries jumping on board, open sourcing their Bible study resources, and actively encouraging others to do the same.

I simply can't accept the excuses that "it can't be done" or "it's impractical" or "worship leaders have to make money somehow." The whole open source movement blows these claims completely out of the water. Some open source software packages have taken far longer to write than all the time that Graham Kendrick, Martin Smith, Tim Hughes, Matt Redman and the entire Hillsongs crowd have spent on all their songs put together -- yet they are still made available for free, despite being mature and stable enough to power business critical servers. If software developers can do it, why can't the Church?