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It is convenient, but mistaken, to think, as many people do, that copyright protection is a new idea for protecting wealthy singers and artists. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is actually enshrined in the American Constitution, which gives all individuals “the exclusive right to their writings.” The first Copyright Act was passed in 1790, years before any Christadelphian was born. Similar legislation exists worldwide, and there is an International Copyright Union with headquarters in Bern, Switzerland.

Let us all understand then, ‘copyright’ is nothing new. The apostle Paul was annoyed and disturbed by supposed brothers in Christ infringing his copyright: “We ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report, or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way.”1

Although there are some important exceptions, in the USA copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years, after which any work passes into the public domain. In Europe, it lasts for 100 years after the date of publication. In 2004, I found this out in rather dramatic fashion in the British Library. This library holds the only known copy in the world of a particular booklet by a Christadelphian author (Isaac Barnes of Kingston, Jamaica), published in 1909. A librarian carefully observing the row of photocopiers, came over to me and to my embarrassment and that of other readers, took the booklet away from me. I was told in no uncertain terms that the work could not be copied in full until 2010. I was permitted to copy a mere six pages of the volume.

When I was on the staff of the Library of Congress in Washington, a colleague with access to J.J. Audubon’s famous paintings in a volume entitled Birds of America, published in 1838, copied them and sold the reproductions as ‘collectors’ items.’ He not only lost his job but went to jail. He resented the fact that the Library of Congress held the sole rights to the originals.

“For the benefit of the Truth”?

The law clearly states that “intellectual property holders have the right to control the use of their property.” This property includes books, articles, letters, e-mails, photographs, printed and recorded music, speeches and lectures. Christadelphians have always disliked the copyright law, because it prohibits tampering with and changing other people’s words and work without their consent and without acknowledging the fact publicly. Many Christians claim that they engage in illegal activity “only for the benefit of the truth” which supposedly takes precedence over the law of the land.

The notion that the interests of a religious body are above civil law was certainly not a first century Christian doctrine. It probably originated in the fourth century with Ambrose, bishop of Milan. In 388, in the town of Callinicum, a Christian zealot so inflamed people against the Jews that their synagogue was robbed and burned. The Roman authorities ordered the stolen property to be restored and the synagogue rebuilt at the Christians’ expense. This infuriated Ambrose, who rushed off a letter to the Emperor Theodosius which included the famous dictum: “The maintenance of civil law is secondary to our religious interests.” He insisted that to order Christians to do anything good for faithless Jews was outrageous, and against “the best interests of the truth.”

Against the stated position of the Lord Jesus and the apostle Paul, Ambrose’s view is still very much alive. During a recent, widely viewed television debate in Jamaica between the Roman Catholics and the Seventh Day Adventists (the largest single denomination in the country), both churches claimed that “the church is not subject to the state”! Which led a journalist to comment that since “so many churches believe conflicting doctrines, all of which cannot be correct,” then it is the duty of the state to ensure “a level playing field.” Then “the purveyors of their wares” can bring their wares and “let all ideas contend.”2

A comment by Johnson and Simpson in a recent legal journal is all that is necessary at this point: “Illegal activities, even when done for good causes, are still illegal. It’s that old ‘ends don’t justify the means’ problem. When you don’t agree with a law, you can work to change it. In the meantime, copyright is federal law”.3

Adding copyrighted material to a website is illegal. Some years ago, an entire book of mine was copied on to a controversial Internet website by a brother without my permission or even knowledge. It was a great idea, maybe, but both Christian courtesy and obedience to the law were flouted by misguided zeal. And oddly, another brother demanded that a bookseller destroy the remaining stocks of the same book, which was done without my knowledge too. This, of course, was just as illegal.

Copyright law is quite explicit. If a brother circulates even a handwritten letter without seeking permission from the writer, he is a law-breaker. If he alters it before distribution, as has happened with many letters of mine, it is a serious crime. If an article in one magazine is reproduced unaltered in another, acknowledgement of the source is sufficient. But if the purpose for reproduction is malicious, hyper-critical, or can be reasonably interpreted as character assassination, as is the case far too often amongst us, then it is very easy to break the law both in letter and spirit. No one except a professional journalist has the right to record or publish a public statement or even a speech at a meeting and distribute it “by any medium whatsoever” without the speaker’s consent. The American Copyright Law specifically defines this as “stealing.” The fact that many people other than journalists “steal” flagrantly is no excuse. Let him that stole steal no more.4

When I was in South Africa in 2004, there was a very interesting case in the law courts. Nelson Mandela is a very generous man. He sued a business friend for selling copies of his work from his prison years. This is illegal. All royalties and income from any work of Nelson Mandela must go to charities of his choosing.

We are familiar, or certainly ought to be, with the dire warnings about copyright in some of our hymn books. I have observed brethren not only ignore these legal notices, but ridicule them. This ought not to be. If ‘the world’ has to keep this law or suffer the penalties, then even more so ourselves!

E-mail and the Internet

“I solemnly and legally agree and contract not to send, knowingly receive, upload, download, use or re-use any material which is abusive, indecent, defamatory, obscene or menacing, or in breach of any copyright, confidence, privacy, or any other rights, to cause annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety. I agree not to send or upload any viruses, trojan horses, worms, time bombs or any other harmful programmes. It is a criminal offence to reverse engineer, disassemble, decompile, or make any attempt to unlock or circumvent the digital copyright protection of the content of any e-mail, computer software, or website.” Chances are, nearly every reader of this article will have signed assent to that statement many times in the last few years. Did you read it before ‘clicking’ your solemn agreement, or just simply ‘clicked’ and ignored it?

Let me tell you how easily any of us can fall into committing a serious crime. A sister on the other side of the world wanted to inform me about some very wrong, even criminal, things a brother was doing which directly concerned me, and for which there was clear evidence. But she e-mailed me with details, which is a crime. I summarized these in an e-mail to a brother very close to me, which is a criminal act. It is not a question of the facts; there is no doubt about these. But it is a serious crime to use e-mail, a universally accessible public medium of communication, to give prsonal details, whether true or false, about any living named person without that person’s legally expressed permission.

Some time ago, as a former editor of The Caribbean Pioneer, and its former web site, I received a memorandum from an Internet regulator called Peter Christian (his real name).5 I believe some other Christadelphians also received a copy. Four of his statements are worth citing here:

  1. “Both web sites and e-mail are treated by the law as publications, and are copyright;”
  2. “Because most chat rooms and discussion fora are free and easy to use, most users feel that they are at liberty to abuse the medium. But whether you realize it or not, every word is recorded for legal use if necessary, by man as well as by God;”
  3. “Simple facts themselves are not copyright, but any compilation of facts is protected by law. Such compilations, many printed off the Internet, are widely used in power point presentations by Christadelphians in public situations. This is illegal;”
  4. “Just because you CAN play God and disseminate information in a fraction of a second to every corner of the human universe, it does not mean that you SHOULD.”

Hopefully, we can assume that no reader of this series will defend using the Internet to download and distribute “adult” (read “filthy,” obscene and wicked) websites, even though we know of Christadelphians still in fellowship who do such things.6 But there is another, much more subtle, snare lurking on the Internet. This is the very naïve but widespread belief that whatever is on the Internet must be accurate and factual. Millions of students now gullibly confine their studies solely to the Internet, believing it to be infallible. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Internet is a forum for sharing opinions. Even Wikipedia, the open encyclopedia, cannot be trusted. I have done many checks on things I know professionally, and inaccuracies abound. Of course, there is a wider scope of information than in a typical textbook, but my experience is that users of the Internet grab quick and easy information, or the first that comes to hand, without any checks whatsoever. Then they use it or misuse it in whatever way they want for their own advantage. I can assure you that in university theses, “the Internet” is not an acceptable form of citation! And this cavalier treatment of information is not the way of a true and faithful Christian. Follow Paul: whatsoever is true, whatsoever is of good report, think on these things…7

The Law of Libel

The apostle Paul suffered grievously from the false and libellous accusations of fellow-Jews who were his brothers in faith. He was even “in danger from false brothers”.8 As a citizen under the protection of Roman law, he told Governor Festus clearly and unambiguously: “I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. If the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!” 9

When Paul and Silas were falsely accused and illegally imprisoned, they stood, not on their dignity, but on their legal rights. Paul said to the officers, “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out”.10 They did so, very promptly, requesting (note, not ordering) them to leave the city. But the two apostles ignored the request and instead went to Lydia’s house, where they met with the brothers. It was not a bravado gesture, it was their legal right. When Paul’s brothers and fathers were shouting, “Rid the earth of him!”, without hesitation he firmly but courteously insisted on his rights as a citizen and the legal support of the state.11

And when it came to vicious libel, did he keep silent? Three of the world’s most famous, divinely inspired, letters, I and II Corinthians and Galatians, were written specifically to challenge and refute scandalous charges made against him. “This is my defense to those who sit in judgement on me…,” and he follows with a devastating critique of the charges, and a testimony to his own integrity.12 Not, please note, of his own self-righteousness, of which he had none.

I have some Christadelphian literature before me which repeatedly insists that as believers we have no legal or human rights in this age, and that modern democracy, human rights, and the rule of law are a devilish frog-like spirit emanating from the French Revolution. Of course, historically, that is incorrect. But also scripture tells us a different story. When Jesus was struck in the face by a court officer of Annas, a retired high priest, he challenged him, “If I said something wrong, testify as to what is wrong, but if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?”13 Years later, the high priest Ananias (a relative of Annas) ordered those near Paul to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you white-washed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!”14 We certainly do have legal rights, and within the Brotherhood they should and must be respected.

One serious problem is that sincere, but very misguided Christians (sometimes our own brotherhood), expect their victims to have the spirit of Christ (as they would say) and so ‘forgive and forget’ regardless of their own hardness of heart. They then use this to twist their victims into submission and silence. How many times in recent years have we heard the argument that we should never wash our dirty linen in public, that we must not do or say or write anything that might prejudice or jeopardize the spotless reputation of the church (brotherhood)? The present crisis in the Roman Catholic priesthood, facing serious charges going back decades, should warn all of us of the folly of sweeping wrong-doing under the carpet. In the ‘west’ at least, we all expect Muslims to disown their lawbreakers. Democratic societies look far more favourably on a religious body that is honest, and which copes with inevitable scandals promptly and fearlessly without foolish attempts to cover them up.

Do not bring slanderous accusations.15 When, in this day and age, those who claim to be Christ’s refuse to accept his jurisdiction, the only course has to be, “I appeal to Caesar” 16

But we cannot leave the matter there. For there is a much deeper spiritual dimension to all this. “If he repents, forgive him” 17 Right there is the real test, for both the wrong-doer and the victim. Paul could refer to Barnabas as a co-worker years after their acrimonious dispute and parting of the ways. Who had repented? The distaste Paul expresses against using Gentile courts for Christian disputes is obviously not because we are ‘above the law.’ It is that Christians should never be so stubbornly spiteful that resorting to the law of the land ever becomes necessary.

We wish to conclude this instalment with a wise appeal to our brotherhood by Bro. Islip Collyer, first published a hundred years ago during a time of bitter controversy and division: “It is usual to judge the heinousness of a sin solely with reference to its effect on humanity. When people claim to be servants of God, however, they must employ a higher standard. It is true that some sins are more serious than others, but the comparison must not be made by reference simply to the well-being of humanity. There are some transgressions for which God has in a special sense expressed His abhorrence. The depth of a man’s guilt is determined, not by reference to the degree of harm he does to other men, but by the degree of deliberateness with which the law is violated. In other words, sins of presumption are always worse than sins of infirmity”.18

Alan Eyre, Kingston, Jamaica


1 II Thessalonians 2:1-3.

2 Peter Espeut, “Religious hard talk”, Daily Gleaner, November 22, 2005.

3 Douglas Johnson and Carol Simpson, “Copyright caution”, Learning and Leading with Technology, 32:7, 2005.

4 Ephesians 4:28.

5 Peter Christian, Because of Conscience.

6 In Jamaica, very wisely, anyone who wants access to “adult” sites must request the server in writing to provide them. A few days ago, after repairing my line, the server’s agent assumed that I would be making this request and gave me the form. He was astonished when I returned it to him unsigned.

7 Philippians 4:8.

8 II Corinthians 11:26.

9 Acts 25:10-11.

10 Acts 16:37-40.

11 Acts 22: 1,22-29.

12 I Corinthians 9:3.

13 John 18:23.

14 Acts 23:2-3.

15 II Peter 2:11.

16 Acts 25:11.

17 Luke 17:3.

18 Islip Collyer, Conviction and Conduct, 90-91.

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