How copyright works
As we all know, it is illegal to steal, you cannot take someone else's property. However, sometimes the value of property isn't contained in a physical object but in the intellect used to create it. The value of a song isn't contained in the single page it was originally written on but in all copies ever made of it. This is called intellectual property, and this is what copyright protects.
There are many types of resources that are protected by copyright:
- Textual resources: books, bibles, articles, trainings, ...
- Artistic resources: music, poems, photos, artwork, ...
- And others like: sermons, software, ...
Like any kind of property, it is automatically illegal to steal intellectual property, you don't have to apply for protection or even include a copyright notice on it. This applies not just to the original work but to all copies ever made of it.
However, because intellectual property can be easily copied, it is perfect for sharing when you want to bless other people. Unlike physical property, intellectual property can often be reproduced at virtually no cost. But the only way intellectual property can be shared is if either you pay for every copy from the owner (such as printed books) or if the owner gives you permission to make copies yourself.
While it is illegal by default to copy someone else's intellectual property, it is legal to use parts of it if the use is "fair". This is called "fair use" or "fair dealing" and allows common sense uses of copyrighted resources, such as quoting parts of a book you are reviewing, or parodying another work. Such uses are not intended to abuse the ownership of the property but are interacting with it and necessarily including parts of it to do so.
For example, most bibles will state that they allow a certain amount of verses to be quoted from them without permission, however such licenses are not necessarily needed as it is already legal to quote parts of bibles even without permission due to fair use laws.
However, the exact laws of "fair use" and "fair dealing" vary by country and some are more permissive than others. Fair use is in general very limited and is not intended to help you actually make use of a resource but rather just refer to it. So it cannot be relied upon for actually sharing resources.
So if you want to share intellectual property you have to actively disable all or some of the copyright protections that apply to it. Disabling copyright completely is done by dedicating something to the "public domain" which is where you declare that it no longer belongs to you but to the public, and you therefore don't have any exclusive rights to it any more.
Almost all copyright eventually expires 50-70 years after the death of the author and becomes part of the "public domain", but anyone is able to dedicate their work to the public domain at any time.
An alternative to disabling copyright completely is licencing, where you give someone permission to do something with the resource that they wouldn't normally be allowed to do. When done commercially, this is usually a private agreement with individuals or organizations. But licenses don't have to be private, instead they can be granted to the public to allow anyone to do certain things with the resource.
"Public licensing" refers to granting broad permissions to the public to use a resource without having to ask the owner for permission. Public licenses will allow anyone to use a resource as they wish, but the owner can still enforce some conditions on the use such as requiring it to be non-commercial or preventing the resource from being modified. Public licenses that only require you to attribute the creator and have no other conditions are called "open licenses".
A public license is legally binding but there are no formalities to it, you can write your own as long as it is clear what permissions are being given. However, to avoid mistakes and misunderstandings it is almost always best to use a license that has been created by legal experts.
Implications for Christians
Copyright is an attempt to prevent "theft" of resources that are valuable because of the intellect behind them rather than their physical properties. In this regard, Christians could embrace copyright as a means of preventing theft.
However, intellectual property is inherently different to physical property in that:
- It can be infinitely reproduced without directly affecting the original work
- The Bible does not directly address it
- For most of human history there was no copyright
- And copyright all expires after a mostly arbitrary duration of 50-70 years
These factors should prevent us from directly equating intellectual theft with material theft to the same degree. As to whether Christians should make use of copyright for ministry resources, read on!