Finding Our Way in the World of Copyright

Living in western Pennsylvania I am somewhat of a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. I don’t like all of the hype associated with professional sports, but I sure enjoy watching football on TV. I’ve even been to a couple of Steelers’ games–that is when friends have been kind enough to give me free tickets.

Mike Tomlin, the current head coach is quite popular with his players, the community and even with the Pittsburgh media. On occasion I like to watch Mike’s interviews. He undoubtedly understands leadership and the nuances of coaching. Like his predecessor, Bill Cowher, Tomlin is always quick to articulate the fact that football is a business. They are marketed as games (and even more), but the bottom line is that professional sports are a multi-billion dollar business.

When we started Search for Me Ministries, Inc. in April of 2006 I quickly came to understand that starting a ministry is a lot like starting a business. There are government requirements to be met (if we can figure out exactly what those requirements are), ministry and employee policies that need to be established, and of course, an abundance of bills that simply demand to be paid.

Ministry, however, is not a business and in spite of any similarities, we must be careful to maintain a ministry first motivation. Otherwise we fall into a trap where money becomes the bottom line rather than precious human lives. It’s with this understanding that we have sought to find our way in developing the various aspects of SfMe Ministries. Unfortunately the process has not always been easy or pleasant. As humans we have such a tendency to complicate things!

One of our struggles has been with regard to copyright policies and the distribution of the teaching materials that we are in the process of developing. Extensive consideration has been given to three possible models:

Traditional Copyright – This approach protects the rights of ownership so that others cannot steal or corrupt that which authors and publishers have worked so hard to produce. The problem is that our traditional copyright approach has a tendency to limit the dissemination of truth rather than encouraging it. As a former campus minister I can’t begin to tell you how many times I found myself frustrated in trying to obtain good quality, low cost teaching materials for our students.

Creative Commons – Frustrated with the limitations and selfish abuse of the traditional copyright approach, a new wave of efforts are being made that blend well with the Internet age. Creative Commons copyrights offer varying, but still very liberal, levels of freedom in allowing others to copy and further develop music and other forms of media. Although not entirely comfortable with this approach, it was the direction we started to take. We want to get truth out to others!

Several potential problems exist, however. One is that the Creative Commons policies are almost too liberal for our use. Consider for example, a non-profit organization selling our teaching materials for a fundraiser. Significant potential exists for this to be done in such a manner that our message is discredited–something we’re working hard to avoid. Some degree of copyright protection is necessary for us to effectively steward the life-changing truths with which we have been entrusted.

The other significant challenge that we face is money. Even though ministry is not a business, there are still many costs of doing ministry that need to be considered. We can’t ask employees to stay with us and build families if it forces them to live at a poverty level. The Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:14, “In the same way the Lord commanded those who proclaim the gospel to receive their living by the gospel (NET).” Unfortunately, without constant reminders (and sometimes manipulation), the percentage of people who will give sacrificially to the cause of the Gospel is all too small. And if the tithe goes to the local church, as I believe it should, parachurch ministries face significant challenges regardless of their benefit to the cause of Christ.

How do we find our way in honoring God, while meeting the needs of our families and ministries? Those that know me understand that I’ve sought to live by faith in this arena, but I’m also coming to more and more of an understanding as to how other contributing factors are involved.

Freemium – The Freemium approach is somewhat of a mix between the traditional and Creative Commons copyright models. You may not be familiar with the term, but I’m sure that you have seen it at work. The Freemium business model provides some things for free, while others require a premium to be paid. You know, like a blog site that provides an awesome, free utility, but charges for more space to stream audio messages.

I think that the Freemium potential for Christian ministry is huge! Those who cannot afford the cost of buying teaching materials would be able to obtain some type of free access. But if they want the convenience of a book, CD, or DVD there would be an expense involved.

The Freemium model may help Christian ministries strike a better balance in the tension between the worlds of ministry and business. A ministry first model can be adopted where people are able to obtain access to good quality teaching materials either at a low price, or free of charge. At the same time, those who can afford to do so will pay for the privilege of convenience. The funds obtained from the sales of resource materials will then cover some of the costs necessary for ministries to help fulfill the Great Commission. I think it just may be a win/win situation–and we all like those!