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9. A License for Freedom

Licenses governing the use of discipleship resources tend to be restrictive, focusing on everything that people are not allowed to do with the content. These licenses do not enable the global church to legally work together in the translation, adaptation, distribution, and use of discipleship resources in any language. By contrast, the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License grants anyone the freedom to use and build upon the content without restriction, subject to the two conditions of the license: crediting the original content to the original owner, and distributing what is created from the original content under the same license. This license is ideally suited to provide the freedom the global church needs to legally equip themselves to grow spiritually, while minimizing the likelihood of commercial exploitation of the content by others.

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On November 18, 2006, Jeremy Keith did something decidedly unremarkable. He took a photo of his friend, Andy, with a cheap point-and-shoot digital camera. Then he posted it on Flickr, a photo sharing website. Like many photos on Flickr, it was an amateurish photo, slightly blurry and washed-out. Apart from the fact that the picture had been taken in NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building, and part of the building’s internal structure was visible in the background behind Andy, the picture was completely forgettable.1

Over a year later, Jeremy received an email inquiry about his photograph.

“Is the photo Andy in the VAB your image on Flickr? If so can you please contact me with regard to possibly allowing us to use a part of this image in a feature film.”

A little later, a second email arrived with a few more details about the request. But, being in the final stages of packing for a trip, Jeremy did not reply immediately and soon forgot about the emails. A few days later, he received a call on his mobile phone.

“Hi. I sent you two emails about using a picture of yours…”

He started to explain how the photo was licensed and how it could be used.

“Well,” the voice on the line said, “the thing is, getting your name in the credits usually costs at least $1,500. That is why we need you to sign the license release form I sent.”

What kind of movie was this, anyway? Jeremy asked where they were going to use his photo.

“It is for a movie that is currently in production called Iron Man, starring Robert Downey, Jr.”

His photo, in Iron Man? That was something that didn’t happen every day. The woman faxed him the paperwork which he signed and sent back. A few weeks later, Iron Man was released and there, right around the three minute mark, was the background from the picture taken on his point-and-shoot camera, with the main characters imposed over it in the foreground.

How does a blurry, washed-out photo of no apparent value wind up in a film that grossed over half a billion dollars worldwide? The answer has to do with one small thing that Jeremy did with his photo that changed its future forever: he released it under a Creative Commons license that permitted it to be reused for any purpose, without restriction. Even as a scene in a feature film from a major movie studio.

The Way We’ve Always Done It

Copyright attaches to creative works automatically and reserves all rights for the creator of the content. When a content creator grants permission for others to use their content, they do so by means of a license.2 A license is a legal document that specifies the freedoms granted to others, and the conditions for those freedoms. Licenses often are comprised of multiple pages of “legalese” explicitly stating exactly what you are not allowed to do with the content. For example, consider these points taken from a typical license on a website that provides media content to consumers via the website and a software application (note that the license text is briefly explained in italics below and a more complete version of the license is available in appendix A, “A Classic License”):

  • “…no rights… in or to the Content are granted to you.”

    Meaning: You do not have permission to translate, adapt, build on, redistribute, or use the content, except as specifically granted in the license.

  • “The copying… redistribution… adaptation… creating of derivative works [including translations]… is strictly prohibited…”

    Meaning: You are specifically not granted permission to translate, adapt, build on, or redistribute the content. A total of 18 specific activities are absolutely forbidden in the Terms of Use for this license.

  • “Subject to your strict compliance with these Terms of Use, The Owner grants you a limited… revocable… license…”

    Meaning: If you comply with every aspect of the conditions stated above, you are granted a license providing minimal freedom to consume the content, but that license can be revoked at any time at the sole discretion of the owner of the content.

  • “…[you are granted a license] to:
    1. download and use The Owner’s software… and
    2. listen to and view media streamed from the Website;”

    Meaning: All this license permits you to do is use the software, and consume the media online.

  • “Provided that you [do not do 25 specific things]…”

    Meaning: The two things you are permitted to do with the content are sandwiched between long lists of everything you are expressly forbidden from doing.

As you can see, licenses generally attempt to close all the loopholes and maintain complete and absolute control over the content. Licenses tend to grant the user only the absolute minimum permission necessary to consume the content, usually nothing more beyond that. These licenses are not licenses for freedom, nor are they designed to be. They are licenses to preserve the content owner’s copyright-enforced “all rights reserved.”

Licenses like these worked well in the analog world of “paper”, because disseminating content usually required using a third party, like a publisher or record label. The content creator would transfer to them some or all of the rights to the content they created, and the publisher or record label would market and distribute it on their behalf, keeping a significant portion of the revenue in the process.

In the digital era, however, anyone can create and distribute content using the Internet, and traditional licenses are often too restrictive for their purposes. A new artist may want to release their music from some restrictions so that their music can be legally redistributed and heard by more people, leading to new venues to perform their music. An author may want their work to be freely available in many publications, increasing their exposure and the potential for other writing opportunities.

Writing a traditional license to provide these freedoms is a complicated undertaking. It usually requires the services of an Intellectual Property attorney, which can be expensive to secure. All of this adds up to a climate that is restrictive, costly, frustrating, and even antithetical to the very design of the Internet and computer technology.

There is another way

Eric Eldred was a computer programmer-turned-publisher who specialized in printing and making books available which were in the Public Domain. In 1998, the United States Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which added 20 more years to the duration of copyright. Eldred had been preparing to print books that were about to enter into the Public Domain under the terms of the existing copyright law, but the lengthening of copyright would prevent him from doing so for another 20 years.

He went to court—and eventually the Supreme Court—to challenge the constitutionality of the act. Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School, was his lawyer, and they were joined by others, including computer scientists and law professors. Together, they founded the Creative Commons in 2001. Their purpose was to provide tools that enable content owners to share aspects of their copyrighted works with the public. Explaining the purpose of the organization, Lessig described it like this:

It was intended as a grass-roots movement of creators, otherwise known as copyright owners, who would look at this default of “all rights reserved” and say “I don’t need all rights,” the most they (sic) need is some rights.3

Eldred’s case generated a lot of attention, but he was eventually defeated. An hour after their defeat in the Supreme Court, the Creative Commons was given a grant of one million dollars to launch the movement. In 2002, they released the first version of the Creative Commons licenses, enabling content creators to release some of the restrictions on their copyrighted works, for reuse by others. These licenses enable content owners to change the default “all rights reserved” on their content to “some rights reserved.” As James Boyle notes about the Creative Commons:

It can be seen as re-creating, by private choice and automated licenses, the world of creativity before law had permeated to the finest, most atomic level of science and culture.4

Since 2001, Creative Commons has grown rapidly in numerous countries. It has become the de facto means of releasing content from copyright restrictions. By 2009, an estimated 350 million works were released under Creative Commons licenses, including major content repositories like Wikipedia.

But Is It Safe?

The idea of pre-clearing anyone in the world to use one’s content can seem alarming. It could seem that this is an unsafe means of increasing the usefulness of the content, because it could be inviting abuse. The concern of others doing bad things with good content may be a legitimate concern. As we have already seen, content holders cross that bridge when their content goes from analog to digital, not when they release it under an open license. Copyright restrictions do not prevent bad things from happening to digital content. They provide a legal platform to enforce the content owner's rights.

In the digital world, there is a danger that your content will be misused or that others will take advantage of it. But there is a greater danger than that. The real danger is that, in the increasing flood of new content available on the Internet for free, so many people will never even know your work exists that it will be as irrelevant as if it had never been created.

One way to increase the effectiveness of the content is to release it from some copyright restrictions so that it can be legally used in more places by more people for more purposes. Doing so increases the exposure of the content and the “mindshare” of the content creator. This is what happened with the photograph taken by Jeremy Keith that wound up being used in the Iron Man movie. Because the photographer released it under a Creative Commons license, it was available for use in ways that far exceeded the expectations of the copyright holder.

Advantages of Creative Commons Licenses

Content creators often want to grant others permission to use their content in a specified way. They correctly do so by means of a license. Unfortunately, content creators sometimes assume that writing their own licenses is a good idea. Few content creators have the legal training in copyright law that would give them sufficient understanding of licensing to author an effective license. Because of this, writing a “homemade” license often results in a license that is ambiguous, changes frequently over time, may not say what the author thinks it says, and may not be enforceable in other legal jurisdictions around the world.

Creative Commons licenses address all these shortcomings and provide many other advantages.

Royalty-free – All Creative Commons licenses are free for anyone to use without paying license fees or royalties to Creative Commons. There are no applications or registrations—a content creator can simply apply the license to their work and make the work available to the public.

Clear – Every Creative Commons license includes a human-readable summary of the license. In a few clear paragraphs, the license summary explains exactly what the legal code (the actual license) does, in terms that do not require a degree in copyright law to understand.

Accurate – The legal code for each license is written by Intellectual Property Rights attorneys and people who understand how digital technology and the Internet work. The licenses are legally defensible and have been upheld in numerous cases in various parts of the world.

Internet-optimized – In addition to providing a human-readable summary of each license, Creative Commons provides a licensing tool that creates a “machine-readable” version of the license as well, for use on the Internet. This metadata affixes to the content itself or to a web page that contains the content, and enables search engines to catalog the content according to the type of Creative Commons license.5

International – Creative Commons works with affiliates in various parts of the world to port the legal code of the licenses into different legal jurisdictions. This ensures that what the license says and means in one language and legal jurisdiction is enforceable in other languages and legal jurisdictions as well.6

Stable – Licenses that are written by well-intended people who are untrained in copyright law are often unstable, revocable, and easily changed. This makes it difficult for people to use the content legally, and with the confidence that the terms of use will not be changed at a later date, making their previously legal use of the content illegal. By contrast, Creative Commons licenses are irrevocable and stable. When content is released by a copyright holder under a Creative Commons license, it cannot be “unreleased” later—it has been locked open. This requires careful thought before licensing, but has the immense advantage of creating a context that is reliable and unchanging. People using content according to the terms of a Creative Commons license need not worry that the license will be unilaterally changed out from under them at some point in the future.7

Compatible – The freedoms granted to users by Creative Commons licenses make it very clear what content is legally compatible for use with other content. This greatly increases the usefulness of the content, making it possible to legally (and easily) remix and reuse content from various sources, according to the terms of the Creative Commons licenses used by the copyright holders.

Freedom, Conditionally

There are a number of Creative Commons Licenses, each having its own strengths.8 Not every Creative Commons license is equally useful for the purpose of equipping the global church with discipleship resources. Some Creative Commons licenses are so open that unintentional problems can be encountered later on when using them. Many of the licenses are too restrictive, failing to grant the global church the legal freedom they need to translate and make discipleship resources effective in their own languages.

The Creative Commons licenses work by combining certain conditions under which a work is made available. These are the conditions used (in different combinations) in the licenses:

  • Attribution (BY) – Requires crediting the original work to the original creator (or the owner of the work, if they are not the same).

  • ShareAlike (SA) – Only permits redistribution of a derivative work created from the original (like a translation or adaptation) when it is made available under the same license.

  • NoDerivs (ND) – Forbids the creation of derivative works, including translations. The work must only be passed along unchanged and in whole.

  • NonCommercial (NC) – Forbids any use of the content in ways that are considered “commercial”.

The conditions of “NoDerivs” (preventing the creation of derivative works) and “NonCommercial” (preventing commercial use of a work) are deceptively attractive. They would seem to prevent the abuse of the content by others and the commercial exploitation of the work. But licenses with these conditions do not grant the global church the freedom they need to effectively use the content.

The Problem With “No Derivatives”

Any license that includes the condition that prevents derivative works (“NoDerivs”) prevents, by definition, the translation of the content into any other language, since a translation is considered a derivative work. It prevents the adaptation of the content for effective use in a different culture. It also prevents revision of the content at a later point in time to maintain the accuracy and usefulness of the translation as the spoken language changes and needed corrections to the original version of the content are discovered.

The Problem With “Non-Commercial Use Only”

Licenses containing a “non-commercial use only” condition (labeled as “NonCommercial” in Creative Commons licenses) are fairly common and appear to be a good choice for “free-of-charge” discipleship resources. In reality, they significantly limit how far and effectively a resource can be used. In the context of equipping the global church to equip themselves for spiritual growth, licenses containing a “non-commercial use only” condition perpetuate significant obstacles for the global church.

The theological and practical considerations of this topic are addressed in detail in appendix B, “The Non-Commercial Use Only” Problem. (Note: in the next chapter we will consider sustainable models for the creation of “open” discipleship resources that do not have a “non-commercial use only” condition.) This is the “thumbnail sketch” of the argument:

  • Too Restrictive – The “non-commercial use only condition” restricts the global church from using any means necessary—even commercial models—to provide that resource to every people group in their own language. Making content available as in physical formats (like books, CDs, etc.) costs money and requires a business model—which is forbidden by this condition—if it is to be sustainable. In addition, the content itself cannot be redistributed using commercial models like ad-supported radio, websites, or mobile applications.

  • Prevents Good Things – The “non-commercial use only condition” prevents for-profit companies from using commercial models to improve and redistribute the content, because they cannot recover their investment. In the secular world, content that is not encumbered by a “non-commercial use only” condition is frequently improved upon by for-profit companies. Because of the terms of the license (i.e. “ShareAlike”), these improvements also benefit everyone else who uses the content.

  • Makes the Global Church Work for Nothing – The economic context of many in the global church makes it imperative that they be given the same freedom of making their living from the translation and distribution of discipleship resources that we enjoy. The “non-commercial use only” condition forbids it.

  • Ambiguous – Some licenses that contain a “non-commercial use only” clause qualify it by allowing a person to “only cover expenses”. This begs the question: what does it mean to “only cover expenses”? Who decides what qualifies as “covering expenses” and what crosses over into commercial use? Given the complexities of countries, economics, and currencies (among other factors) that affect the answer, there is no way for the global church to know in advance if their use of content governed by this condition is ethical.

  • Unnecessary – The “non-commercial use only” condition is used in an effort to prevent the commercial exploitation of content by others. This condition is not needed to prevent unchecked commercial exploitation of digital content. The “open” nature of the licenses prevent the creation of a monopoly, and a license with a “ShareAlike” condition requires sharing back to the community whatever is created from the original work. These factors tend to greatly limit the possibility of commercial exploitation, while encouraging the possibility of commercial partnership. (This is addressed in greater detail later in this chapter.)

There is one license that is ideally suited for discipleship resources in the digital age. The Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License—which does not have a “non-commercial use only” condition—is an excellent license that grants all the freedoms needed by the global church, while also ensuring that no one gets “locked out” of the works over time.

The Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License

The sample of a traditional license we saw earlier in this chapter was characterized by clear statements of everything you are not allowed to do with the content, as it is the exclusive property of the content owner. Standing in sharp contrast to the restrictiveness of a traditional license, the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike is all about what you can do with the content. Here is a basic overview of the license (see appendix C, “The Attribution-ShareAlike License” for the complete license, including the human-readable summary and legal code):

You are free:

  • to Share — to copy, distribute, and transmit the work

  • to Remix — to translate, adapt, build on, redistribute, and use the content

  • to make commercial use of the work

Under the following conditions:

  • Attribution — “Give credit where credit is due.” You must attribute the original work in the manner specified by the owner of that work (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work).

  • Share Alike — If you translate, adapt, or build on the original work, you may distribute what you create only under the same or similar license to this one.

A traditional license, like the one referenced earlier in this chapter, exists to provide consumers with the right to merely access the content for consumption. It specifically does not give them any rights to the content itself—permission to use the content remains the exclusive right of the copyright holder. The license gives you permission to access the content on their website or use their software, but it does not give you the right to translate, adapt, build on, redistribute, or make publicly available the content itself.

The Attribution-ShareAlike License, by contrast, provides not only free access to the content, but grants legal freedom to actually use the content itself. In fact, the freedom granted is so far-reaching that a person can use the content in much the same way as if it were their own (though not exclusively their own). They are legally pre-cleared to use it in any way they need, including translating, adapting, and redistributing the content.

While this sounds like a good thing for the people using the content, this degree of freedom can raise some concerns for the owners of the original content. Apart from the concern of commercial exploitation (addressed below), one of the most common concerns about “open-licensing” a discipleship resource has to do with preserving the identity of the original content creator and the authoritativeness of the original content.9 It could seem that, if anyone can do anything with the content, such a permissive license might invite abuse and confusion.

The Attribution-ShareAlike License is specifically designed to address this concern. The significance of the “Attribution” and “ShareAlike” conditions are considered briefly here and in detail in appendix D, “Analyzing ‘Attribution’ and ‘ShareAlike’”.

“Attribution” Points the World to You

The “Attribution” condition requires that any use of the content, like a translation or adaptation, clearly attribute the original work to the original creator. It clearly states:

  • the name of the original work

  • the name of the original work’s creator

  • the website where the original work can be found

  • the license under which the original work is made available.

The attribution statement is important because it provides a direct link back to the original work. It is important to understand, however, that a statement of attribution is not a statement of endorsement. It merely shows the consumer of the work where to find the original.

In the digital world, you cannot control what happens to your content, but you can control what is on your own website. When there is a statement of attribution on any derivative work—good or bad—the user is provided with a direct connection to the website of the owner of the original work. For resources available online, this link increases the “search engine optimization” of the original website. It also gives the owner of the original work the opportunity to exhibit the original work, against which the derivatives are compared. The owner of the original work can also list which derivative works (like translations) of the original are “authorized”, or make other works available.

Note: The Attribution condition in the Attribution-ShareAlike License is important because it provides a direct connection between the consumer and the original content. In the event, however, that specific uses become a disadvantage, the copyright holder has the legal right to remove their name from the derivative work.

“ShareAlike” Locks the Content Open

The “ShareAlike” condition provides one crucial element to the license. It prevents the “locking down” of any derivative works, keeping them open for use by others while also limiting the potential for commercial exploitation of the content.

Without the “ShareAlike” condition, a translation of a discipleship resource would automatically become the “all rights reserved” possession of the translator. Because of the way copyright law works, the owner of the original work would need to request a license to use the translation of their own work from the translator. The “ShareAlike” condition prevents this situation by stipulating that any translations (or other derivative works) of the original content can only be made available under the same license.

The “ShareAlike” condition also prevents someone from taking the content, improving it in some way, but then redistributing their improved version of the content under a restrictive license. It requires that the freedoms granted in the original work be granted in all generations of derivative works on into the future. In this way, what was intended to be free and unrestricted, remains free and unrestricted.

How “Attribution-ShareAlike” Minimizes Commercial Exploitation

The Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License is designed specifically to allow commercial use of content, but in such a way that commercial exploitation is virtually impossible. The net result is a license that does not cripple the global church, permits commercial partnership to improve the content, but prevents monopolization and price inflation. Here's how it works. (Note: this is explained briefly here and in detail in appendix B, “The Non-Commercial Use Only” Problem.)

There are three factors that contribute to the unique strengths of this license:

  • Market Economics – In order for there to be maximum commercial value of a work, there needs to be a state-enforced monopoly that permits only one entity to sell (or otherwise monetize) the work. By releasing a free-of-charge work under an Attribution-ShareAlike License, this monopoly is destroyed. It is difficult for a third party to sell a digital resource that is freely available online, and if anyone can legally sell and redistribute a physical resource (like a book), the price will tend to remain very low—especially for popular resources.

  • The “Attribution” Condition – The legally-mandated inclusion of a statement attributing the original work to another may tend to minimize the likelihood of a third party wanting to market and redistribute another entity's discipleship resource. But even if they do, this may actually be a better thing for the owner of the content, because the third party is marketing and promoting the discipleship resource (with a link to the owner's website) to the entire customer base. This increased mindshare for the owner of the original work is extremely valuable, and opens up many other opportunities for them that might not otherwise have existed.

  • The “ShareAlike” Condition – Any attempt to reformat and distribute content released under an Attribution-ShareAlike License is legally required to be free of encryption or Digital Rights Management that would otherwise restrict the original freedoms given by the owner of the content. This means that even if someone packaged the content and attempted to sell it, anyone else could legally redistribute it for free from their own website. The content is locked open, forever, in all future versions and formats. Without an exclusive lock on the content, it is nearly impossible to leverage the content for commercial exploitation.

Identity and Authority in a Digital World

In the “paper” world of copyright-restricted content, protecting the distribution chain of the content was an effective strategy for preserving the identity and authoritativeness of the content creator. If you tightly controlled the distribution and maintained exclusive rights to it, you could prevent (or at least minimize) bad things happening to your content, which could reflect poorly on you. By locking everything down, you could ensure that what was in your printed book was only what you wanted to be in your printed book, nothing more, nothing less. Because it was so costly and complicated to create and distribute a book, content tended to remain static and unchanging. So if you controlled the distribution of the (mostly) static content, your identity was relatively safe.

But that only worked in the “paper” world. In the digital world, the notion that you can control the distribution chain—when every Internet-connected computing device in the world can be part of the distribution chain—does not reflect reality. In the digital world, content rarely stays static, being both trivially easy to change and transmit. You may still be able to maintain control of the legal distribution chain, but only by fighting against the very advantages of the Internet and digital technology. The traditional “lockdown” mindset toward content distribution finds itself threatened by every advance in technology that makes file-sharing easier, faster, cheaper, more efficient, and more anonymous.

Attempting to limit distribution also puts the content owner directly against their number one ally: the consumer. You want the consumer on your side, singing your praises. But in this context, the assumption is that the consumer is the “bad guy” who might try to use digital technology to give away free copies of your stuff. So the default stance tends to leverage the implicit threat of legal action, and to make use of Digital Rights Management techniques to encrypt and lock down the content to prevent distribution.

In this context of attempting to preserve one’s identity and authoritativeness, the world suddenly went from “offline, analog, under control” to “online, digital, out of control.” Given this massive shift, the idea of releasing content under an open license that legally permits others to create new content from it may seem ridiculous. Wouldn’t this be a recipe for disaster, by making it legal for anyone to do anything with “my stuff” and then distribute it anywhere in the world without my permission? This would seem to be a disaster for preserving one’s identity and authoritativeness, and this is also not what a Creative Commons license does.

Releasing a work under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License does not give away the ownership of the work.10 It merely licenses the work in a manner that permits the global church to legally redistribute “my” work, and to make their own translations (or other derivatives) of it available in the nearly 7,000 languages of the world, without restriction (but subject to the two conditions of the license). I still own “my stuff” but have given the entire global church legal freedom to use it effectively and without hindrance for their own spiritual growth. Releasing discipleship resources under an Attribution-ShareAlike License is not a recipe for disaster. It may actually be the most missiologically strategic move a content creator could make.

Almost, Not Quite

Some owners of discipleship resources do realize the urgent spiritual need of the global church. Many want to help the global church by providing greater legal freedom in the licenses governing the use of their discipleship resources. There is often a hesitancy, however, to go “all in” and release discipleship resources under an open license like the Attribution-ShareAlike License.

This hesitancy may exist for different reasons, but two things are the same in every situation. First, there is no obligation—ethically or legally—to release discipleship resources under an open license. The law and the Bible both state that owners of Intellectual Property are free to dispose of their property (or not) as they choose. The second point to consider in these contexts is this: either a discipleship resource is released under an open license, or it is not. There is no middle ground.

Some owners of discipleship resources have attempted to create an arbitrary division at the license level that separates the world into different jurisdictions, often along economic or linguistic lines. This can sound like an attractive solution. It would seem to prevent commercial exploitation in lucrative markets (like the West, or in larger languages) while still permitting the rest of the global church to benefit freely from the work. In reality, however, these “pseudo-open” licenses often create more problems than they solve.

Without addressing the significant theological and missiological implications of explicitly defining such divisions in a license, let us consider the implications from a practical perspective. Consider, for example, a license that only permits people in developing nations to freely translate, adapt, build on and redistribute a discipleship resource (while everyone in a developed country must first go through the proper channels to request a specific license).

Right away, we run into the problem of defining a “developing nation”. Unless the owner of the discipleship resource provides a comprehensive list of countries that qualify, what definition should be used? Furthermore, when is a country no longer “developing” but “developed”? When a country crosses that line, are the Christians using the discipleship resource now infringing on the rights of its owner? Are the translations and adaptations of the content that Christians in that country freely and legally made for their own spiritual nourishment (while the pseudo-open license applied) now illegal? Are they now required to pay royalties for each use? What if their work has been in widespread use for many years and they are unable to afford the royalties?

The same kinds of problems and ambiguity arise from license restrictions that depend on the size of a language. A pseudo-open license might grant broad freedoms for translation and use of the content only in languages having fewer than, say, ten million speakers. But again, we encounter the problem of accurately drawing the line dividing the two groups. Few people outside of the academic world know or care how many people speak their language. Not only that, enumerating the number of speakers of a given language is notoriously complicated, especially as the number changes over time. What is the authoritative resource that should be consulted to resolve the ambiguity? What happens when a language grows in size and crosses the “ten million speakers” line? Are the translators of the discipleship resource now in violation of the license, even though their work was legal when their language had fewer than ten million speakers? Are Christians who received the resource for free now going to be required to pay royalties after the fact?

This is only a small sample of the kinds of problems encountered when attempting to gain the benefits of releasing a discipleship resource under an open license, while also maintaining certain restrictions. The two are mutually exclusive. Clarifying and enforcing the restrictions requires that someone be in the position of referee, authorizing or disallowing use of the content. Such licenses are, by definition, not open licenses. The unavoidable reality is that either a discipleship resource is completely open or it is not—one cannot have it both ways. Almost open is still closed.

Discipleship Resources Want to Be “Open”

Imagine a world in which every single Christian could freely share in the sum of all Biblical knowledge. Think how the world would be a better place if every believer in the world had unrestricted access to adequate discipleship resources, in their own language. Think how God would be glorified by the sacrificial giving of His Church to meet the spiritual needs of others.

This kind of vision of being able to share freely in knowledge is not new. It is the driving vision behind secular organizations like the Wikimedia Foundation, whose vision is this:

Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment. —Wikimedia Foundation Vision Statement11

The secular world has tapped into the vision of unrestricted access to collaboratively created information and content in a big way. But the Church is, in some ways, still reflecting the same 6th century mentality of copyright restrictions that launched the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne over copying someone else’s Bible.

What if the global church were to adopt a vision that was as generous, gracious, and loving as the God we serve—a vision of everyone, everywhere with free access to adequate Christian discipleship resources in their own language. The good news is, this vision is already starting to come to pass. Christians all over the world are starting to work together, across denominational and organizational lines, for this purpose. A core of open-licensed, unrestricted discipleship resources is starting to be created to meet the massive need of the global church.

This pool of unrestricted discipleship resources is the Christian Commons.

1 This story recounted in Jeremy Keith, “Iron Man and me,” dec 2008,

2 Verbal agreements may be binding, but they can be difficult to prove. Written licenses are preferable as they provide a record of the terms and conditions of the agreement.

3 Lawrence Lessig, “Early Creative Commons history, my version,” aug 2008,

4 Boyle, The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind, 218.

5 This technology is useful in many applications, such as when searching for images. Various search engines, including Google and Flickr, provide filters that enable the searcher to limit the search results to images released under Creative Commons licenses and with specific permissions made available by the copyright holder.

6 At the time of writing, the licenses have been ported into 50 legal jurisdictions. Note that not only are the licenses translated into other languages, but the legal code itself is adjusted as necessary to account for the differing legal nuances in different jurisdictions.

7 The licenses themselves are improved and upgraded by Creative Commons over time, but the changes that are made to the licenses are designed to make them backwards compatible with previous versions of the same license. See “About The Licenses,” accessed September 26, 2012,

8 There are six main licenses: Attribution (CC BY), Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA), Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND), Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC), Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA), and Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND). Creative Commons also provides tools that work in the “all rights granted” space of the public domain. Their CC0 tool allows licensors to waive all rights and place a work in the public domain. Ibid

9 In the digital world, especially, identifying the authoritative source of a work is important. Given the ease of copying, modifying, and redistributing content in the digital world (whether legally or illegally), it is important for anyone who encounters a derivative work to be able to identify and locate the original, authoritative work.

10 Ownership of a creative work is only relinquished when a work is in the Public Domain, where no rights are reserved.

11 “Vision,” n.d.,