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Some Rights Reserved

Pick up any book or CD, and in the fine print you’ll see the words “All rights reserved”.

That's great for commercial works, where the primary interest of authors, musicians and creative types is getting a financial return on their investment.

But how should God fit into that picture, as the ultimate Creative Type? God obviously doesn’t need us to protect His interests. But we are involved in creative works every day, and the law forces us to make some choices:

  • Lock our work up to maximize financial return
  • Make our work freely available by putting it in the ‘public domain’
  • Make our work freely available, provided someone is not trying to profit from it.


Copyright & Public Domain

Locking up work to maximize financial return is what happens automatically if we do nothing. The law in most countries provides automatic protection for anyone that creates an original work in print, word or song. The automatic law restricts access to the content so that the author – or whoever owns the copyright – can get the most money for what was created.

Copyright also allows the creator to limit the use of their work – Michelangelo might not have wanted the Mona Lisa used to advertise luxury cars – but the primary practical use of copyright is financial. When copyright expires, which in many countries is only long after the creator is dead, the work falls into the public domain. This means anyone can use it for anything, without paying anyone anything for it. It also no longer matters what the author might have wanted: Michelangelo can’t prevent Mona Lisa from selling cars.

Creators don’t have to die to get their work into the public domain. We can choose to release any of our work into the public domain by deliberately making a written declaration. If we don’t make that declaration, the work is automatically locked up. For more than a hundred years, these were the only two real choices.

Unfortunately neither of these choices is very suitable for Christian ministry. Public domain release might seem the best choice, because the top priority for God’s word is widespread, free distribution. But works in the public domain can be abused, and sometimes creatively warped or locked down again for financial gain.

Further, the legitimate costs of creating and distributing work in the past have almost required the use of copyright to recover the costs and make the production possible. So despite the desire to freely spread God’s word, the tendency with Christian books, hymns, music and films has been to use copyright to lock them down.

Most Christian material still bears the ominous words: “All rights reserved.” Creative licensing of works, such as through CCLI, reduces some of the problems, but most Christian creative works for teaching and even worship are still locked down in exactly the same way as commercial entertainment.


“Some rights reserved.”

In recent years copyright law has been applied in an entirely new way to get the best of traditional copyright and public domain.

This arose through the ‘open source’ software movement, where thousands of programmers wanted to work together to create free software. They were concerned that if they freely gave away the software, a company might just take all their work, perhaps make a few improvements, and start selling it.  The result was a creation of a new type of license: Software was copyright, but essentially the license allowed others to use it for free, as long as they agreed not to sell it. Volunteers from all over the world could work together, sharing their most creative ideas, confident that no-one was going to ‘steal’ their hard work and lock it down to make money from it.

In essence, the creators give away some rights through the license, like the right to copy the work without having to pay, but reserve other rights that ensure the work remains free. Because it is still a license, copyright law is now on the side of ensuring openness. The bad guys are no longer the guys that copy it – instead the bad guys are the guys that won’t share it, or illegally try to profit from it. The words pretty much mean exactly what they say:  “Some rights reserved.”

This creative use of copyright to ensure openness – instead of locking creative work down – spread like wildfire. Fears that the quality might not meet ‘commercial’ standards proved unfounded, and now the vast majority of critical computers driving the internet all use free, open source, software. Many commercial enterprises, including big names like IBM, pay their own employees to work on open software that is freely given away even to IBM’s competitors. Open source has truly transformed the software world.  Creative licensing of copyright works, and the dedication to keeping creative works accessible for all, has come a long way in a short time.

The same “Some rights reserved” concept has been applied outside software with great success. One notable example is Wikipedia, which became the largest encyclopaedia ever created in less than ten years. Even more remarkable is that Wikipedia achieved that milestone with only twelve paid staff, but over one million volunteers. Clearly, volunteers trust this new approach to licensing and copyright, and have been prepared to share their best creative work with the world.

Many lawyers and academic experts have refined this approach, and new non-profit organizations have been created to allow authors, songwriters, musicians and many other creative people to benefit. One of the best known is Creative Commons, who have created legally valid, standard licenses for more than 50 countries. More than 180 million creative works have already been released under these licenses.


Christian Copyright

This new approach to licensing suits many Christian ministries very well. Works can be freely shared around the world, and the creator doesn’t have to worry about anyone ‘stealing’ them to try and profit from them, or using copyright to block them or limit distribution.

Because copyright law operates ‘automatically’ in most countries, and automatically locks up the work completely, Christians wanting to share their work more freely must take a second to mark their work. The easiest way is to use Creative Commons licenses. These licenses let you choose how you want your work to be used.

To choose the right approach for each situation, there are really only three questions you need to consider:

  • Do you want to force people to identify you as the author of the work? Add ‘BY’
  • Do you want to stop others using your work for commercial purposes? Add ‘NC’
  • Do you want to let others modify your work, as long as they too share the result? Add ‘SA’

If the answers to all these questions were yes, you would identify your work as CC BY-NC-SA. And you can replace the threatening “All rights reserved” with the slightly friendlier “Some rights reserved.”

There are a couple of other options that can be important.  Sometimes you might want people to share your work, but not modify it.  Or perhaps you don't want to force people to put your name on it every time they make or use a copy.  The Creative Commons licenses provide for all the options you are likely to need.

You can see our licensing guide to help make choose the best license for your creative work, or you can visit If you are actually publishing something on the web or on paper, there are web links and specific legal wording you should consider using.

You can get all this for free from the Creative Commons website. All the hard legal part is already done for you. It cost them a lot of money to develop these licenses, but they are able to give them away for free because the Creative Commons licenses are, themselves, licensed using Creative Commons licenses.  Everyone can use them, but no-one take take them and start selling them as their own.

These licenses have been tested in courts in various countries, and they have so far proven to be a legally valid way to protect authors' interests.  They also protect the interests of the people that receive the licensed works - like downloaders - so they are confident they are in legal possession of the work. Of course, every situation is unique.  Most licenses, whether old-fashioned or Creative Commons, are like a one-way street: Once you license your work, it is often impossible for you to go back if you change your mind.  So especially where there is a lot of money at stake, you should always consider obtaining independent legal advice.


So Reserve All Rights, Some Rights, or No Rights?

Certainly for some Christian work, “All rights reserved” is entirely appropriate.

This includes books, films and music meant mainly for entertainment or profit rather than ministry. There may also be some material that is so costly to produce – films in particular – that might not be possible at all without the commercial support of traditional copyright. But even in these cases, the creators might decide that after costs and reasonable profit has been recovered, it would be appropriate to re-license the works so that more people can benefit from them.  You should plan for that possibility in your original commercial licenses, so that nothing locks you in forever to commercial distribution.

For much Christian work, "Some rights reserved" may be the best option.

Open licensing using Creative Commons licenses is easy, quick, and simple. It leaves more room for God to use the gifts he has given you to bless others around the world.

All copyright works, Christian and otherwise, eventually end up in the Public Domain with almost "No rights reserved".  

Especially before the option of Creative Commons licenses, there might have been circumstances where you want to fast-forward into the future, skip the copyright period, and just put your work in the public domain right away.  This could include countries where various government or legal restrictions might restrict the use of copyright works in a way you don't want, even under the Creative Commons licenses. In such circumstances Public Domain works may be the safest method of distribution.  One possibility you may consider is arranging things so that the original license is Creative Commons, but if for some reason that is used to restrict distribution of your work, it is re-released into the public domain.  

Being in the public domain isn't necessarily a bad place to be.  Don't forget that until recent times (when many translations have been copyrighted for various reasons), all of scripture has always been public domain, and God has looked after the integrity of his word without any assistance from human copyright laws.

Whatever choices you make, remember that copyright in many countries will extend for nearly 100 years after you are dead, so you need to consider the far future.  Even if your work is commercial now, you may want to make clear arrangements so it isn't left locked up and forgotten after the immediate commercial value has passed.

DeoSound itself uses Creative Commons licenses for most of its creative material. For more information on licensing and copyright, and how you can use copyright in your own church or ministry to keep God's word free for everyone, see our Free the Word project.

Copyright © 2010 DeoSound Foundation Some rights reserved. BY-NC-SA ; )

Does copyright limit your ministry, or set it free? How Christians get creative with copyrights.