Every church I’ve ever attended has had to spend time, energy, and money contending with copyright infringement. Every duplicated hymn in the bulletin, every extra copy of music for the musicians, etc. is potentially a source of copyright violations. Many churches work hard to prevent this kind of problem with organizations like CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International) and with licensing agreements through church publishing houses, but I’ve yet to find a church which fully complies with copyright law.
On one hand, paying for worship resources guarantees that the church can continue to develop high quality products in the future. On the other hand, licensing can be expensive, especially for small churches. Also, copyright enforcement actions effectively pit Christian against Christian and bring new meaning to “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Sliding-scale payment schemes go a long way towards making resources accessible to small churches, but they are imperfect at best. What can be done?
Don Parris at Blue-Gnu recently began developing a hymnal for his small church which will feature music which is free as in free speech or the “freedom” in “freedom software.” Most of the hymns will be derived from The Cyber Hymnal, which is a huge collection of public domain hymns.
In some senses this begins to help solve the problem of free access to worship resources for smaller congregations, though by not including musical scores and liturgy resources this kind of hymnal would not offer enough for a typical Lutheran church. With the growing popularity of electronic distribution and video projection in church sanctuaries, physical copies of worship resources are becoming less important. Few would dispute, I think, that church publishing houses (and big name publishers in general) are becoming less significant as the Internet grows. If electronic distribution of worship resources becomes the norm, the Freedom mindset of the Internet will have done to church publishers what it has already done to newspapers: crippled their power and forced them to adapt to a situation where widespread usage without compensation is the norm.
Electronic distribution, technology in worship, and other forces are already redefining church publishers’ landscape in the same way that blogging did for newspapers. Just as newspapers ignored, then ridiculed, and then desperately embraced blogging as the Internet culture redefined news distribution, publishers are also beginning to face the same kind of changes with projects like Parris’ freedom hymnal. I hope they will learn from the mistakes and delays of the newspapers and embrace free (and freedom) distribution before they are smashed by new technology.