Intellectual Property is Still Property

Recently, I attended a church production that did a really excellent job delivering the message of God's love and his desire to redeem our lives, no matter how big or how numerous our mistakes. The production quality of the show was absolutely professional, and the actors, singers, and dancers involved all showcased high-quality talent.  I wanted to enjoy that production without reservation, but there was a problem.

The show was "homegrown," which is great. I admire the effort it takes to work from scratch if you can't find a pre-packaged dramatic production that fits your needs. However, there were a couple items in this homegrown commodity that left me questioning the legality of their use.

One large section of the story was told utilizing the text from a published collection of children's stories. However, nowhere in the program or anywhere else did I see any credit given to the author or publisher of this text. I know for sure my own publishing contracts make very specific mention of and provision for who owns the rights for dramatization (in any form, film, audio book, or live performance) of my writing. As with any author, if I don't retain those rights, the publishing house controls them, and therefore, it is against the law to use someone else's writing without either purchasing or otherwise procuring the rights.

I'm not saying this church did not procure the rights legally, because I don't know if they did or not. I don't attend there, and I was just a visiting audience member. If they did procure the rights, it would have been nice to see something in the program acknowledging the source. At the very least, the author and publisher deserve a shout-out for their hard work. Such a shout out prevents rules-driven people like me from stewing over whether the church did what was right in terms of copyright law.

But if they didn't procure the rights and just went ahead and used this author's text, boy does that put a bee in my bonnet. A whole swarm of them.

The process of getting a children's book written, picked up by a publisher, illustrated, edited, typeset, released, distributed, and into the hands of readers is a process that takes countless hours--years, literally--of many people's lives. Most writers scrape for every penny they make at their passion, so every time somebody misuses or misappropriates their work, it takes food from the mouths of their children or keeps new shoes off those kids' feet. For a church to use content without permission, even for a production that was free to the public, is unconscionable.

My husband put it like this: would the church steal the lighting equipment they used for the show? No, they rent it and pay whatever it costs. (And there was some really fabulous lighting for the show, I have to say.) How are lights different than content? I would argue they are less important! All the lights in the world can't convey the message the text does.

The last point I'm going to make about this is this: if we as Christians think we can skirt the proper handling of intellectual property, that creates another reason for non-believers to point at us and call us hypocrites. "See? They're no different than any of us. Just a bunch of lying thieves, hiding behind good intentions." Even if souls are impacted by the message a less-than-legal production conveys, for me, the ends don't justify the means.


  1. How old were the childrens' stories? Were they public domain, like Robert Lewis Stevenson or something? Because, if not, wow, that's all kinds of copyright violation right there. They may have credited their work in the play program or somewhere else, though. In the plays I've been do, they don't list a lot of credits from the stage.

    1. No, the collection is not public domain. It is a current, in-print book available at all major bookselling outlets, written by a single, named author. And like you said, a credit in the program would suffice, if the author or publishing house granted the rights of use as a favor. Had it been a purchase arrangement, then the credit isn't really necessary, since you wouldn't credit every publisher or composer whose sheet music you bought. That's how it pay for it, and that grants you certain rights of performance--and it's your job as a director to know what you have the right to do with the music or script or whatever you bought. Why that seems so hard to fathom for some folks, I can't figure out.

  2. Hmm... yes, I agree that credit is important. At any rate, I can't think of any reason why the church shouldn't have credited the author.

    This is a touchy subject, though, and strict copyright legalism is not really a good thing either, in my opinion. What about fan fiction? Fan games? Roleplayers using IM to immerse themselves in the world of their favorite author? Not all creative endeavors are commercial, and some are not even very formal. I think a church play counts as something both non-commercial and informal, though of course I have no opinion of the one in question. If copyright law were universally applied to everything, it would kill a lot of things and stifle of lot of joy. It might even put an authoritarian blockade on creativity.

    I highly doubt that the informal adaptation "takes food from the mouths of their children or keeps new shoes off those kids' feet." The absolute worst case scenario is that they would have had to pay but didn't want to. In that, case, if they had been honest, they would simply have done something different and not used the author's material at all.

    I doubt that informality is any defence against copyright law; I'm no lawyer. That's not the point, to me. Of course, you are free to believe that Christians need to follow every nuance of every law, but following the law to the fullest extent isn't always objective. Anyone who has ever appealed a traffic ticket in court and accepted the fee for a lesser traffic violation, different from the violation that he or she was originally charged with, has wandered into the murky area where law becomes subjective.

    Understand that I'm not defending the church. Not crediting someone's hard work that you benefited from is immoral.

    1. I completely understand your point about copyright law having potential application that is overreaching, and my statement about the monetary loss an author suffers is, of course, a worst-case scenario example. I appreciate your presentation of the pitfalls of blind adherence to the letter of the law in scenarios where it doesn't actually apply. Now, if the church had charged admission to this event, then there would be absolutely no question about the legality of matters. Thank goodness they didn't. I suppose my greater objection is wrapped up in the continual devaluing of creative product, a mindset that bleeds into this situation.


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