Sunday, September 11, 2005
Copyright: a response ::

The copyright rant below (based on Christian Bell's rant in Calvin College Chimes) not only stimulated good comments from bibliobloggers Ed Cook and Chris Heard but a longer reflective critique by email from Bob Buller, who gave me permission to copy it here. It's much better than my knee-jerk response to Christian's piece, so (though I am not at all as keen to defend copyright as Bob) I am delighted to present to you:

Christian Bell's article "Keeping Integrity without Copyrighting" left me breathless—for all the wrong reasons. Thus I offer for perspective a few random responses (by no means a measured or adequate discussion of this key issue) to certain of his claims. Of course, readers should consult the entirety of Bell's article for themselves.

After stating that "Copyright is fundamentally incompatible with Christian scholarship," Bell writes:
But consider that we live in an era where our ideas (which are now called "intellectual property") are under an increasing amount of legislative and judicial restriction. Recent legal movements such as lawsuits over media copyrights should cause us to wonder who owns our thoughts, or indeed, should anybody?
Bell's reference to "our ideas" and "our thoughts" betrays a fundamental confusion about this issue. In fact, ideas and thoughts per se are no more protected by copyright than feelings and emotions. It is only when ideas and thoughts or feelings and emotions are given some form of concrete existence, whether in words or images or whatever, that copyright applies. Later he adds:
The problem is that copyright places restraints on both scholasticism and scholars; it locks ideas up under the ownership of particular people who are legally entitled to do whatever they want with it.
Again, Bell confuses ideas with works. Copyright places no restraints on the free use of ideas, merely on the illegitimate appropriation of another's work. Put simply, one scholar is perfectly free to appropriate the ideas of another (we see this all the time in academic writing), but that scholar cannot simply reproduce another's work beyond the constraints of "fair use," a key element of copyright protection that Bell neglects to mention (and the basis for my quotation of his copyrighted [!] article here).

That Bell views copyright claims as a sign of a deeper spiritual malaise is evident when he states:
The proper method — and the historical method — for Christian scholarship is for our work to be conducted by members of the body of Christ for the benefit and enjoyment of the rest of the body. Simply put, our work must serve Christ.
Copyright in and of itself is no barrier to distribution, since the individual who holds copyright may indicate that a work can be freely distributed. Copyright merely limits the right to make "distribution" decisions to the person who "authored" the work. As a sandwich maker, I may decide that I want to give my sandwiches to those who cannot afford to buy them (in service of the body of Christ). However, would one then argue that every sandwich maker in the church is obligated to give all his or her sandwiches to the needy, simply because they would benefit from and enjoy them? If not, then why should "original works of authorship" be treated any differently? At its core, Bell's argument appears to betray a surprisingly low opinion of scholarship, that it is not "real work" and thus should not be afforded the same protections that other works enjoy. Or perhaps Bell views scholarship in overly exalted terms, as something that is so superior to the work of the unwashed masses that it should not be tainted with "profit" motives. Bell goes on:
In the former case [profit], the motive is plain enough: copyright gives its author the exclusive right to sell and profit from his/her work. We have no direct quarrel with this motivation; what we do quarrel with is the whether or not profit is enough of a motivation to restrict the distribution of ideas. Profit is undoubtedly the most driving force behind the legislative and judicial focus on copyright; the distribution of copyrighted material is, after all, a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Yet again Bell is flogging a straw person (to mix metaphors horribly). Copyright in no way restricts the free distribution of ideas. Rather, it stipulates only that, if anyone is to profit from a work (a condition bordering on contrary-to-fact for much scholarship), the author of that work has the right to determine who will do so.

After a long but confused explanation of how copyright fosters pride and ego, Bell pulls out his "big gun":
What does this all mean to us, practically speaking? Let us consider a simple but troubling example: the copyrighting of Scripture itself. Pick up the nearest contemporary translation of the Bible and turn to the publication page. It is there, in black ink, that we find these perverse words: "The Holy Bible. [Some version.] Copyright [some date] by [some publisher]."
Even if one grants for the sake of discussion that the copyrighting of Scripture is wrong (although the issue is not as simple as Bell's example suggests), one must ask if the right solution is an absolutistic requirement that no Christian copyright any work. Emotional appeals and black-and-white declarations regarding right and wrong are no substitute for careful and informed discussion about complex matters on which people of good faith (and true faith) may disagree.
Having spent the majority of his time and energy denouncing and demonizing advocates of copyright protection, Bell offers a brief solution:
Avoiding copyright of course raises questions about what the alternatives are. We can say succinctly that there are alternatives, including the public domain, Creative Commons licenses, and other alternative protections that keep the integrity of our work intact while ensuring that it stays free — both in terms of cost and in terms of freedom.
Release to the public domain would ensure the free (in every sense of the word) distribution of material, but it would not address the "pride" factor that so upsets Bell—unless he wants to suggest further that all Christian scholarship should be anonymous. Creative Commons licenses are a wonderful alternative that I support, but one should not ignore the fact that they are predicated on the very same belief as copyright, namely, that an author of a work is the sole individual who has the right to determine how it can be used. Creative Commons licenses are more an application of copyright law than a replacement of it.

In the end, Bell's impassioned call for the abolition of copyright in Christian scholarship leaves me cold. First, as a supporter of copyright protection, I do not appreciate Bell's frequent characterization of those of my ilk as "perverse," "selfish," concerned only for "profit" and "ego," allied with those "violently" in support of copyright—indeed, as little more than worshipers of a "contemptuous idolatry" (i.e., outside the narrow circle of the truly faithful, as defined by Bell). Second, Bell's article betrays a fundamental confusion about key issues in this debate, such as the difference between ideas and works, between profit and compensation, even between copyright law and Creative Commons licenses. In addition, Bell raises the matter of ego, somehow attributes it to copyright law, then offers alternatives to copyright that would continue to feed the ego problem that he so abhors. (As an aside, if Bell believes what he writes, why does his name appear at the top of this article?) Third, Bell appears to view the works of scholarship as work of a different sort from that undertaken by the "average" Christian. But is not all good work honorable and worthy of some level of compensation? I believe Paul also had something to say about that. Fourth, Bell seems outraged by a moral problem but wants to attribute it to a legal protection, not to the individuals whose morality he wants to improve. Copyright holders are always free to distribute their works at no cost and to authorize others to do the same. However, this does not mean that the decision of some copyright holders to limit access to their work is perverse, and users have no moral right to the work of others. Fifth and last, I note with irony that a notice of copyright appears at the end of Bell's article. If all that Bell claims is true, why did he not insist that Calvin College Chimes freely give up all claims to copyright for his article? At the least, Bell could have published his opinions in a forum where "all rights" were not "reserved."

Thank you Bob for a thoughtful and thorough critique of Bell's article. And thank you Ed and Chris, too. I'm keen to follow this discussion further, precisely because I find myself sharing attitudes and ideas with both "sides". (NB by "sides" I do not mean that anyone is forming a side or party etc. I just intend it to represent a difference between: As I said I have sympathies with both, so I'll be interested to read your future posts, and mine!

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