We have an email here all the way from Middle Earth: “Hello Pastor John, my name is Simon, from New Zealand. I’ve been thinking a lot about copyright and often wondered how copyright fits with Scripture. I am a video content creator and sometimes the copyright laws matter deeply to me, other times not. How should believers view intellectual property rights?”
Let’s start by laying down a few biblical precepts which are perhaps taken for granted by everyone. But in our day of historical forgetfulness and widespread expectation of unmerited entitlement and pervasive individual autonomy with the individual self as the supreme value and the supreme arbiter in the world, with all of that reality around me, perhaps what I am about to say cannot be taken for granted or for being obvious. But here they are. Here are the precepts that lay the foundation for the understanding of intellectual property rights:
First, God has ordained in this present world that stealing is wrong. Ephesians 4:28, “Let the thief no longer steal.” Or Romans 13:9, “You shall not steal.” Now those are New Testament precepts, not just Old Testament legal statutes. And the assumption is that this is the way born again people will be led by the Holy Spirit freely and joyfully to act. And it is the way that at the level of behavior God commands the world to live.
It also seems to many of us who reflect on it that this command not to steal implies that there must be some right that a person has to keep or possess or use the property that he owns as he sees fit. We call this “private property.” It may not be the best term, but I think we know what I mean: The command not to steal assumes the rightness of personal ownership. Here is another phrase for it, which implies the right to trade what I have or sell what I have so that I could make a living — I could get some appropriate or just or fair value from another person for what I have just created. That is the first precept. Don’t steal, and the right of personal ownership and selling and trading.
Second, Colossians 3:9 says, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices.” So what God expects from Israel once upon a time and from the church today is that we are new people in Christ, and these new people in Christ do not lie to one another. In putting on the new man Jesus Christ, we have put off lying. And that same behavior is normative for the world at the level of behavior, not like telling the truth. Which would imply that if you say that something is yours when it is not yours, you have sinned against God as well as your fellow man.
So if a student in my class says that a paragraph in his essay is his when he has copied it straight out of Wikipedia without giving any credit, the teacher, John Piper, will say: You are lying. And he will say: No, no, no. I really believe what is in this paragraph. It is really my idea. I agree with it. It is mine. And I would say: No, by copying it verbatim from Wikipedia and giving no credit, you have taken over not just an idea, but a way of saying it that belongs to somebody else, and you are not telling the truth. You are a plagiarist and you are going to get a lower grade because of it, maybe not even pass.
Third, and I think it is very relevant to intellectual property issues, in Ephesians 4:28, the same verse we referred to earlier, Paul goes on to tell the thief who should no longer steal: “Let him labor, doing honest work with his hands, so that he may have something” — that is important — “to share with anyone in need.”
So there are at least these three important things in that verse:
First, doing honest work that produces some kind of value. It might be a product. It might be a service.
Second, he should be compensated for it so that he has something. That is how he is making his living now. He is not stealing. He is making things or doing things or producing things or performing things so that people say: That is valuable. I will give you 15 dollars a hour for doing that or I will pay you 14 dollars for that shirt you just made.
And third, he should be inclined in freedom and love to use his resources to help others who may not have his advantages. So the precept of the goodness of work and the rightness of making a profit or earning a living and the goodness of sharing what we earn with others, the goodness of having it to share so that it is free and not coerced, all of that seems to be implied in Ephesians 4:28.
So I would say that all three of these larger precepts — 1) not stealing, with the implication of the rights of personal honorship or private property, 2) not lying and, thus, claiming something to be yours that is not yours, and 3) gainful employment which is justly compensated so that we can possess things and then have things to share with others freely — I think that all of that underpins our contemporary understandings of intellectual property rights. They flow. These rights flow from these principles. And I know that it is possible.
I have read some who approach intellectual property rights from a very different perspective and justify them on the basis of selfishness and hoarding and a desire to be rich and the need to give incentives to people to maximize their wealth by coming up with inventions and other things. But this would not be the first time, would it, when bad motives and good motives lead to the same laws. I can think of lots of illustrations of that in life. But Christians aren’t to be motivated by bad motives even if they come up with the same laws that people with bad motives come up with.
So intellectual property rights include things like patents for inventions of material things. And there is a fuzzy line between material things and other kinds of copyrights and industrial design rights. There is all kinds of considerations. So patents is one — copyrights for the verbal creations, which doesn’t mean that you have mere information or an idea that you own, but rather your form of expression of it is owned.
Trademarks are another example. You design something and it signifies that is the Pillsbury or the 3M or the Apple or the Microsoft trademark. And you can’t start using that for your own company without legal entanglements. And I am saying that these rights are rooted in those biblical principles.
So those are three examples of intellectual property rights and there is lots of others. And the essence of the matter seems to be that just like a person can build a car or a bicycle or make a shirt and sell it in order to make a living, so a person can invent a certain wiring circuitry that can be used in every phone on the planet that has never been thought of before, and make a living by owning that patent for at least a season in history.
Similarly, a person can write a poem or a novel or a song or make a video or a short story or an essay — he can sell it in a store or sell it to a newspaper and make his living that way. And copyright laws exist to protect that way of making a living.
And so it seems right to me that Simon in New Zealand should care about copyright laws and should not consider it sinful to be thankful for their protection of his work so that he can make a living. This is not about boasting. This is not about arrogance. This is not about selfishness. This is about protecting a way of making a living the way selling a shirt would be.
And the only other thing I would add is that Christians are not simply shrewd business people. Our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). We do not exist to lay up treasures on the earth (Matthew 6:19–21). We want to draw attention to the supreme value of God over all material things, including the ones we create. And so Christians will be lavishly generous with the things we create and the money we make from them. It will not be wrong to take the things we create and make a living with them. But we will seek in every way we can to be generous with those in need and especially to spread the good news of the gospel making it as free as we can.
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