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Are You An "Innocent" Thief?

By Karen Heffner

THE WOMAN AT the adjoining machine at our local do-it-yourself copy center had such a large stack of materials on her cart it was difficult not to notice what she was doing. The stack included spiral-bound songbooks, volumes of Christian music, praise choruses, and anthems. A pile of copies lay next to those waiting to be printed. One by one, the woman made her way through the pile, making numerous copies of each selection.

As I watched, I thought how as Christians and churches we can be carelessly guilty of an integrity gap. If that woman had not received permission to duplicate the music, she was engaging in an illegal activity copyright infringement. I’m not in the habit of confronting strangers, so I said nothing. However, I would have liked to ask her if she had received duplicating permission from those who held the copyrights. Perhaps I would not have been as sensitive had it not been for a personal experience.

Several years ago members of my church wished to have a supplemental book of contemporary songs that were not in our hymnal. People submitted their favorites, and we decided to produce our own book including all of these. With enthusiasm, I agreed to work with a committee to oversee the project.

We were midway through the duplicating when one of the church leaders inquired, "Did we get permission from the publishers to do this?" Not only had we not, but none of us had thought it was necessary to do so. After all, our songbook was small and would be used only within our church. The man’s question prompted discussion. Was it really necessary to get written permission to put together our homemade hymnal?

The answer, we found, was an unequivocal yes. It didn’t matter how many copies we were planning to produce or what purpose the final project would serve. It is illegal to copy music without the express authority of the copyright holder. As a result, our project was temporarily suspended while we wrote letters to publishers. We listed the titles of the pieces we wanted to use and asked about fees.

In most cases the fees were very modest, and when we paid them we received the blessings of the publishers. In a few cases we eliminated selections because we felt the permit fee was beyond our budget.

When our songbook was ready for use (with proper credits indicated), we rested easily. We were not stealing materials. Those of us who are involved in music ministry should not only know the law but should be committed to following it meticulously. Often a church operates with a small music budget. The choir director may see an anthem he would like to use, buy one copy, and casually duplicate enough copies for choir members. When that happens, he is taking royalties from the composer money that has been rightfully earned.

As Christians we take God seriously when He speaks of justice, honesty, and dealing fairly with others. The integrity that characterizes our lives is often the very thing that makes us different.

If we are to encourage the creativity of Christian artists, we must do what we can to ensure that they receive full compensation. Composers may well consider their work a ministry, but it also may be their livelihood.

Abuses of the copyright law exist primarily in the area of music, but the principle also holds true for Christian drama, Bible studies, or any other printed material we use. Such things should not be duplicated without permission.

Those who habitually copy illegally should stop the practice. When copying is desired, allow time to write letters requesting permission. It’s not just a matter of courtesy, it’s a matter of law.

If we disregard that law, consequences can be serious should we be discovered. The embarrassment of displaying a poor Christian witness can be compounded by a stiff fine. Even if we are not discovered, saving a few dollars for the church does not justify an illegal practice.