Why this is important
There are both theological and practical reasons why Christian resources should be freely given.
The commercialization of ministry
Christians have become so used to paying for resources, and so trusting of resource creators, that we have barely noticed how commercialized ministry has become. Consider the following realities:
- Scripture does not belong to all believers but to a group of organizations who highly restrict its use
- Most of the world has a Bible translation, but less than half have one they can legally share
- English-speaking nations have easy access to a bountiful collection of Christian resources, where as other languages have little and are forbidden from translating English ones
- Hundreds of thousands of quality books are restricted to only paying customers, even though it would cost nothing to release them for free online
- Churches cannot sing to God without paying royalties, and still pay even when some songs are public domain
- Almost all well respected authors, pastors, and organizations sell their ministry products and retain secular copyright protection of them
- Talks and trainings still require payment even after events have finished and costs have been covered
It is a simple fact that ministry has become thoroughly commercialized. Are good intentions really enough to justify it?
How copyright affects everyday ministry
Say you wrote a Bible study on Ephesians for a youth group. Another youth leader thought the study was helpful so they asked you for a copy, which they then made some changes to and also shared it with some other leaders.
You are totally fine with how your resource was used, but they actually broke the law. Your resource was copyrighted the moment you created it. While you permitted the leader to make a copy for themselves, you did not initially give them permission to share it with others or to modify it.
Your resource then ends up in the hands of some other leaders, who know a bit about copyright, and they decide they'll have to write their own study on Ephesians because they don't know whether the original author (you) would permit them to use it or not.
So copyright in this example (1) unnecessarily made other believers lawbreakers and (2) prevented the resource from being further shared.
The difference of the digital age
In the time of the early church, sharing and distributing Christian resources was very costly. Teachings were shared verbally face-to-face or every copy written by hand. Distributing resources involved lengthy dangerous journeys.
Things couldn't be more different between now and then. Sharing resources can now almost always be done (1) freely, (2) instantaneously, and (3) worldwide. There is still often substantial costs involved in creating resources, but once they have been created they can be shared more freely and widely than has ever been possible before. We should surely take this into account when we consider the kind of compensation the Bible justifies.
On the flip side, Christian resources for thousands of years were never copyrighted. Though it was difficult to make copies, it was only difficult physically, not legally. Now almost everything is copyrighted, and instead of physical barriers we now have legal ones.
Blocking potential users
The pay-to-use model doesn't just ensure that the owner gets paid for their work. It also blocks anyone who would benefit from the resource but isn't able or prepared to pay for it. This is most significant outside Western countries where believers are much less wealthy and unable to pay for resources, or simply do not even have the means to. Many countries are still cash economies and many believers don't have a means of paying electronically. Such people are excluded from benefiting from resources that would otherwise cost nothing for them to be given access to.
If Christian resources are really intended to benefit God's kingdom then we should consider other methods of funding that don't block many people from accessing them.
Copyright not only prevents someone from sharing your resource without your permission, it also prevents them from making changes to it. Often people do not consider this an issue as when a resource is created it should already be as well made as possible. However, that is what innovation is... other people coming up with ideas you originally didn't think of. Instead of thinking our way is best, we should instead be having the humility to think "maybe someone will improve this in ways I never thought of".
Others may also need to adapt your resource to their situation. Perhaps they need to shorten or lengthen it, or add extra material, or fix mistakes, or do something beneficial that is entirely unexpected.
While it might seem like many Christian resources we rely on are easily available through apps and websites, we forget that they can be taken away in a moment without notice. As copyright holders, the owners of these resources can retract them at any time and make them permanently unavailable. This wasn't such an issue in the past, because when you buy a printed copy of something you own that particular copy. But with digital resources you often don't own a copy at all and can only access them via an app or website.
We all know it is not uncommon for believers to lose their faith, adopt heresies, become lovers of money, or morally corrupt. Christian organizations are not immune from this. Their leaders are not immune and their staff are not immune. While it may be infrequent, there have been prominent Christian resources that many relied on that are now no longer available because their owners have retracted them and refuse to republish them.
Releasing resources from copyright protects against this as it allows anyone to continue distributing useful resources even if their creators abandon their faith or change their mind about the resources they've created.
Making fellow believers law breakers
Most Christian resources are reasonably priced and easily accessible in Western countries. But what about the rest of the world? Much of the world outside of the West does not pay as much attention to copyright. Not because of bad motives but simply because the concept of copyright is not well known or understood, and no one enforces it.
Take for example the numerous Christian worship songs that have been (often illegally) translated into other languages and used in churches. Many resource owners won't mind that such things are taking place, but legally speaking, by retaining copyright, millions of brothers and sisters around the world are being made unintentional law breakers.
Creators of resources should instead rely on Christian accountability rather than secular law, rebuking brothers and sisters who act inappropriately but also letting ourselves be wronged rather than making other believers criminals in the sight of secular law.