Christians & Copyright

There is a certain view that a belief in Christianity and a belief in the copyright reform/Pirate Party movement are mutually exclusive. While many Christians are guilty of low-level copyright infringement, it is rare that any will openly admit that they disagree with non-commercial copyright infringement being a crime. Copyright infringement is, after all, stealing, is it not? And stealing is a sin, according to the Ten Commandments. Many who profess themselves to be Christians are strict enforcers of their own copyrights: writers and musicians (or their representatives) frequently take action against those who infringe, regardless of faith or lack thereof, as demonstrated by the following story:

We had a visitor at our church the other night. Perhaps this man has visited your church as well. When one of our ushers greeted him before the service and inquired as to this man’s line of work, he would only say that he “travelled a lot.” He sat through the entire service, THEN revealed that he had attended only to observe our church for possible violations of the copyright law.

Jack Decker.

It comes as a surprise to many Christians that the most popular modern translations of the Bible are heavily copyrighted, notably the New International Version (NIV), the front matter of which states:

The Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978 by International Bible Society. This copyrighted material may be quoted and/or reprinted for non-commercial purposes up to and inclusive of one hundred (100) verses without express written permission of the publisher, providing the following credit line appears with the material being quoted: Taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION © 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society. Quotations and/or reprints for commercial purposes or in excess of one hundred (100) verses, or other permission requests must be directed to an approved in writing by the International Bible Society.

– Taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION © 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society.

This seems contradictory to the espoused Christian ethic of “sharing is caring” and “go forth and spread the word,” unless the latter was intended to be read as “go forth and spread the word [after paying licensing fees].” If Christ had copyrighted the Sermon on the Mount he would have made a killing: the life plus seventy years is still effective for Jesus, as according to the Christian belief he is technically still living. This then applies to all quotes from God and the Messiah.

However, the doctrine of man has always defeated the doctrine of God. The Church* has been one of the main forces in promoting the ‘permission culture’ in which we live. They objected to the printing press, claiming it was the work of the Devil because it reduced their ability to hold a monopoly over both faith and information – monasteries were the main source for painstakingly hand-reproduced texts. In the modern world, where knowledge is so freely available, control is largely lost, except in financial terms, and so copyright is very much strictly enforced and promoted by Christian institutions and individuals:

Early in 2002 a well known international speaker hosted a conference at my home Church. Attendance at the conference came at a reasonable price that, judging by the attendance, would pay both the Church’s expenses and pay for the speaker. During a recess I was chatting with one of our Church members who had been instrumental in organising the event. I asked if the conference was being recorded…and was told that it was being recorded, but that the organisation that the speaker belonged to retained the copyright on the recording. That left me with a sour taste in my mouth.

Philip Ward**.

But what does the Bible say of copyright infringement? A Google search for the term “Christianity file-sharing” showed two articles of interest that reflect the general Christian attitude:

…they call it file sharing. So kind, so generous…it would make your mother proud, right?…“File sharing,” in the way it is most commonly used today, is really “file stealing.” When you rip your latest CD purchase, put it up on Kazaa, and “share” it with the world, you’re giving people something that you don’t have the right to give them. You might argue that copying a digital file isn’t really stealing, since the original file hasn’t been moved at all, but you are denying the creator of that digital work the right they have to make a profit on that work…If you are a Christian and you are “sharing” files that you don’t own, hopefully you are experiencing some inner conflict. That inner conflict is most likely the Holy Spirit prompting you to come clean.

Jonathan Smith.

The perceived scarcity of Christian music seems to convince people they have license to steal it…Isn’t it just like Christians to stab other Christians in the back? You can say all you want about the record companies making most of the money, leaving very little for the artists, but the fact remains that downloading music is every bit as illegal as stealing a CD from the shelves of Best Buy. If you wouldn’t walk out of the store with a CD you did not pay for, why would you download it? The answer is obvious – no one can see you! It seems like an invisible, victimless crime.

Tim Challies.

Yet neither of these actually reference the Bible: there is no use of God’s word to justify these opinions. As God can see both past and future, it is foolish to say that he did not envisage intellectual property becoming an issue. The Bible also mentions intangibles:

…I say unto you, that every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

– Matthew 5:27 (American Standard Version)

Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer.

– 1 John 3:15 (American Standard Version)

It is clearly evident that the Bible is no stranger to the intangible – to thoughts and ideas. We begin to understand that copyright and notions of intellectual property were not created by God: they are artificial constructs created by man and used by Christians and non-Christians alike to hold control over their subscribers. Being a copyright reformist is therefore not a sin.

Does the Bible argue against copyright? Is it pro-reform itself? Not quite, however it does provide some food for thought.

…in him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and unto him.

– Collosians 1:16 (American Standard Version)

Copyright is not necessarily God’s will, and the Christians among us need to remember Jesus’ approach to money – he threw the markets from the temple.

Copyright has no place in Christianity when it interferes with the capacity of spreading the word of God, or prevents people from raising their voice in praise and worship because they have not paid man for the privilege.


[*Used in a historical sense to refer to institutionalised Christianity in general.]

[** Copyright 2002 Philip Ward. Verbatim copying, translation and distribution of this entire article are permitted without royalty provided the copyright notice and this notice are preserved.]


Author: Mozart Olbrycht-Palmer

Pirate Party Australia Deputy Secretary and Press Officer. Former member of the Pirate Parties International Court of Arbitration.