Back to Top

Appendix B: The “Non-Commercial Use Only” Problem

The “non-commercial use only” condition is included in licenses to prevent the commercial exploitation of free discipleship resources. The condition is generally effective for this purpose, but it critically hinders the global church from being able to equip themselves to grow spiritually, without restriction.

The Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (introduced in chapter 9 and included in appendix C, The Attribution-ShareAlike License) ensures that derivative works—like translations of the original content—are released under the same license. Until the implications of the “ShareAlike” condition are adequately understood, it might not seem to address the concern that other entities like publishers or media companies could make commercial use of the content. After all, the license specifically states that making commercial use of the content is permitted. So the immediate reaction by those wanting to prevent commercial exploitation of a discipleship resource is to reject such an open license and use one with a “non-commercial use only” on the license to prevent the commercial “abuse” of free resources.

There are two primary reasons that motivate content creators to include a “non-commercial use only” condition: to preserve their own revenue stream from the content or to prevent the commercial exploitation of the content by other entities (e.g. publishers). If the interest is to preserve one’s own revenue stream from the resource, then a “non-commercial use only” condition makes sense.

There are, however, many in the second category—content owners who want to release their discipleship resources under licenses that permit the global church to make the most use of it, while at the same time preventing commercial exploitation by others. Many view the “non-commercial use only” condition as the best (or only) way to accomplish this. On the face of it, that would seem to be correct, and the condition does prevent commercial exploitation of the content. But while it may prevent exploitation, it also drastically and unnecessarily hinders how far the resource can go and how effectively it can be used by the global church.

There are nearly 7,000 languages in the world and adequate discipleship resources (including, but not limited to, the Bible) are needed in each one. These discipleship resources need to be translated and then revised over time to preserve their effectiveness as the language into which they are translated changes. The traditional means of providing translated discipleship resources depends on someone translating the content into other languages (doing it for them). This approach is costly, time-consuming, and has limited reach. After decades of Bible translation, fewer than 8% of the world’s languages have a translated Bible and fewer still have adequate discipleship resources to teach and explain the Word (Nehemiah 8:8). In addition, many of the languages that have portions of translated Scripture already need revisions to those translations.

It could be argued that, given enough time and money, an organization or formal coalition of mission corporations could conceivably develop the technical infrastructure needed to translate and distribute adequate discipleship resources into all the languages of the world that need them, and maintain the translations over time. It is unlikely, however. What would be very likely in an approach like this would be significant inefficiency due to the massive bureaucracy that would be necessary to support it. Just accounting for the legal side of things would be incredibly complex. Managing the legal rights and licensing restrictions of discipleship resources in thousands languages, with hundreds of different applications, hundreds of millions of different users, dozens of different platforms, and non-conforming term lengths could severely impede the system from the outset.

A vastly preferable approach (practically, as well as missiologically) is to enable the global church to openly collaborate in the legal translation and maintenance of their own discipleship resources. But for this goal to be reached, the entire global church must be given the legal freedom to use any means necessary—even commercial funding models—to get the job done. The global church must be given the freedom to “make their living from the Word” so they can take the content to the ends of the earth. The linguistically “least of these” (which is most of the languages in the world) may not otherwise be reached. This cannot happen for discipleship resources that are released under a license that contains a “non-commercial use only” condition. Here’s why.

In the developing world, the global church must be able to recover the expenses incurred in the translation and distribution of discipleship resources. Many, if not most, do not have the luxury of income from another source. Either they can translate and sell the resource at locally-accessible prices to provide for their needs (which is, by definition, commercial use) or many will have no means of making the content available at all. The presence of a “non-commercial use only” condition on discipleship resources critically hinders the global church from equipping themselves.

We will look at the problems inherent in the “non-commercial use only” condition in greater detail below. First, we will address the issue of preventing commercial exploitation of a resource released under Attribution-ShareAlike, a license that specifically does not include the “NonCommercial” condition. The global church cannot take it “the last mile” if the condition exists, but what is to prevent the abuse of the content if the “non-commercial use only” condition does not exist? There are three points to consider along these lines: market economics, the significance of the “Attribution” condition, and the significance of the “ShareAlike” condition.

Minimizing Commercial Exploitation – Market Economics

Assume for a moment that, as is almost always the case, a discipleship resource that is released under an Attribution-ShareAlike License is also available free of charge online in digital formats. The license permits anyone to redistribute the resource, for free or commercially. So what happens when anyone can legally distribute the content for any price, but the content is already available online from the content creator’s website for free? A third-party distributor would be hard-pressed to generate a significant profit from a free resource available online.

But what about the creation of a physical object from the content, like the printing of a book? The Attribution-ShareAlike License is non-exclusive, so any publisher can make the book available commercially. If the resource is of any value, this will likely result in the book being available for sale from multiple publishers, causing the actual cost to consumers of the paper-and-ink versions of the book to be driven down to near the cost of printing it.

This is not without precedent. Two hundred years before the advent of modern copyright law, a monk named Martin Luther was becoming a prolific writer and starting to have a significant and far-reaching influence with his writings. In the absence of copyright law and exclusive contracts that legally tie an author to one publisher (excluding all others), one might wonder how Luther managed to make any money from his writing. As it turns out, Luther had little interest in making money from his writings, compared to his ultimate goal. Luther’s goal in the writing of pamphlets and other literature was not to make money but to bring about freedom for a global church in theological captivity. And the pre-copyright context of 16th century Europe was an ideal platform to do just that.

There were a number of printers in Luther’s hometown of Wittenburg, Germany, during the Reformation. In those days, there were no legal obstacles to printing, so any printer could print, reprint, and sell anything that was of interest to their customers, without restriction. Luther’s pamphlets were of great interest to their customers, so whenever a new one was written, any printer who got his hands on a copy (produced by another printer) could immediately turn around and recreate it on his own press, print as many as desired, and sell them for a profit.1

So what was the outcome of this pre-copyright era free-for-all? We know that Luther did not go out of business—he was not writing to make money and his livelihood was provided for by his university post and benefactors. The printers of Wittenburg did not go out of business either. No one printer had an exclusive publishing deal with Luther and got fabulously wealthy while the others starved—the wealth was spread out among the printers. In fact, Wittenburg became a wealthy town because of Luther’s works.2

The consumers of the printed content also benefited from the way things were during the Reformation. The absence of a copyright-enforced monopoly that artificially inflated the price to secure higher revenues meant that the price for each pamphlet stayed low, especially for best-sellers, since more printers would print them, driving the price down. It also meant that more people got access to the content at this low price, because any printer could make it available to their customer base. Included in that customer base might be printers from nearby towns who could then recreate and reprint the content, extending its reach to their customer bases as well, and so on. In this manner, the content that brought about the Reformation was made available to the greatest number of people possible, rapidly, and at the lowest cost possible.

The point to draw from this is not that copyrights are evil or should never be leveraged for increased revenue. The point is that there are two ways to distribute content: one that maximizes revenues (by tightly controlling exclusive legal rights), and one that maximizes reach (by releasing content under an open license). As we consider the needs of the global church in thousands of languages, it only makes sense to adopt a content distribution model that maximizes the reach of the content. But doing so necessarily requires releasing the content under a license that removes the restrictions that limit the content’s reach.

One of the restrictions that severely limits the reach of content intended for the global church is the “non-commercial use only” condition. This “non-commercial use only” condition was not a restriction that limited the reproduction of Luther’s Intellectual Property, nor could it have been at that point in history. Because commercial means of distributing the content were not prohibited, the ideas that became the Reformation were able to spread farther, faster, more effectively, and less expensively than would otherwise have been the case. The same is true today.

Minimizing Commercial Exploitation – “Attribution”

Consider the significance of the statement of attribution that is legally required by the Attribution-ShareAlike License. By releasing your content under this license, you permit anyone to use and distribute it, but only if they comply with the condition of attributing the original to you. Now consider a scenario where two publishing companies (or other content owners) are in competition with each other. Each publisher owns a version of the Bible in English and they are attempting to increase the number of sales of their version to consumers.

What would happen if one of the publishers released their version of the Bible under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License? Now the rival publisher could legally print unlimited numbers of copies of their competitor’s version of the Bible, without sharing any of the revenues with them. At first glance, this could seem like a disaster for the publisher who released their Bible under the open license. But would that really happen?

Look at it from the perspective of the second publisher. They can now print and distribute their own “all rights reserved” Bible as well as their competitor’s Bible, without paying them a dime. Would they? Maybe, but not necessarily. They do not own the copyright on the other Bible and they are legally required to attribute the Bible to a website they do not own. Would they want to market their competitor’s version of the Bible to their own customer base? It depends on many factors, including the potential for reduced sales and licensing agreements of their own copyright-restricted version of the Bible. In many (if not most) contexts, they might very well not want anything to do with publishing a “rival” version of the Bible.

For the sake of argument, let us say the second publisher decides to publish and sell their competitor’s version of the Bible that is available under an Attribution-ShareAlike License. If the second publisher is able to sell a copy of the Bible to just one of their customers, it means that one more person who previously had not heard of the Bible or seen any value in it, now has heard of it and considers it to be valuable enough to purchase a copy. And in that copy is a legally-mandated statement of attribution with a link back to the copyright owner. This increases the exposure for the original publisher, as well as opening up additional opportunities for them to make more resources available (for free or for sale) to the user via their website. What has happened is that the second publisher who sold the copy of the first publisher’s Bible, did the marketing for the first publisher, at no cost to the first publisher.

In the Information Era, mindshare is everything. The danger that people will pirate content or take commercial advantage of a free resource is dwarfed by the real danger—that few will ever know that the content and its creator even exist. From this vantage point, there is significant advantage for owners of content who make their work available without a “non-commercial use only” condition, so that any publishing company could distribute the work on behalf of the content owner, for free. This would significantly increase the mindshare of the content owner, by introducing them to huge audiences who might not otherwise have ever known of the content or its creator. By giving the content away freely and without a “non-commercial use only” condition, other opportunities are now open to the creator of the content that would not have been possible before.

Market economics and the “Attribution” condition are not alone. They are joined by a third factor that greatly minimizes the likelihood of commercial exploitation of a free resource: the “ShareAlike” condition.

Minimizing Commercial Exploitation – “ShareAlike”

Consider a situation where an organization is creating discipleship resources that they intend for use by the global church. They have gathered a group of theologians and are developing top-notch discipleship resources of the highest quality and of immediate usefulness to believers all over the world, available on computers and mobile phones. But the organization is facing a dilemma: they want to release the content for free to the global church, but in such a way that others will not take commercial advantage of it. They are aware that a “non-commercial use only” condition will severely limit how far the resources can go and how effectively they can be used by the global church. So they do not want to include the condition in their license.

It turns out, however, that some of the project’s donors have expressed concern that they may not be able to support a project that does not make the most of commercial opportunities (e.g. licensing the content to software developers for use as modules in Bible study software). The ministry feels they cannot justify letting commercial companies make a profit from work supported by donations. They want all free Bible software to use the resources freely, but they don’t want those who sell their software for hundreds of dollars to sell the content as add-ons without sharing the income. What are they to do?

This is where the “ShareAlike” condition of the Attribution-ShareAlike License comes into play. Let us assume that the ministry releases their content under this license and makes the discipleship resources freely available on their website. Any Bible software company can now legally take the content and convert it for use in their Bible study software. They can then charge whatever they want for that module of content, without sharing any of the revenues back to the organization that created the content. A disaster, right?

Probably not. Although any software company can legally convert the content for use in their software program, they are legally prevented by the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License from encrypting the content or using any form of Digital Rights Management to “lock it down” in any way. So the module that the software company makes available for purchase on their website must be an “open” module that is not tied to a particular license key or user account. This is good, but it gets better.

The Attribution-ShareAlike License requires that anything created from the original work—including a repackaging of the work into other formats (like software modules)—be released under the same license, granting to anyone else the same freedoms that were granted by the original creator of the content. One of the freedoms granted is the freedom to redistribute. What this means is that anyone who buys the software module containing the content created by the ministry organization can legally give away any number of copies of the software module to anyone they want. They can even make the software module available on their own website. Technically, they could even sell the software module that was created by the software company from the original content created by the ministry organization.

So it would actually be a good thing for the ministry organization that created the content if the software company used their own resources to create a module for their Bible study software from the content and sold it on their website. The ministry organization could buy a single copy of the module and make it freely available on their own website to any users of the Bible study software. Not only that, each software module sold by the software company is required to attribute the original content to the ministry organization and include a hyperlink back to their website, where users can find the free software module. It will be difficult for the makers of the Bible study software to make a profit from selling the software module when they are legally required to direct their customers to the website of the creators of the original content, where the software module is available for free.

Given the nature of the “ShareAlike” condition, the Attribution-ShareAlike License is more conducive to intentional and gracious partnership than commercial exploitation.

Reasons To Avoid “Non-Commercial Use Only”

Market economics and conditions of the Attribution-ShareAlike License tend to minimize the likelihood of commercial exploitation of content released under its terms. In the context of equipping the global church with adequate discipleship resources in every language of the world, there are specific reasons why avoiding licenses with a “non-commercial use only” condition is a good idea.

Too Restrictive

As mentioned above, a “non-commercial use only” condition hinders the global church from using any means necessary to get the content translated into the smallest languages that have fewer than 10,000 speakers. Picture the Christian in Africa who has the ability and disposition to translate discipleship resources for use by believers who speak his language. But in his economic context, he does not have the option of doing the translation work pro bono. He can either cultivate his field and sell his maize to put his kids through school and pay medical expenses, or he can translate discipleship resources into his language of fewer than 10,000 speakers. He cannot do both. If he is not legally allowed to “make his living by the Word” and receive financial compensation for his translation work by selling it to local churches or publishers, it will not be possible for him to do the work, without funding from the copyright owner or under contract.

The need to be able to recover expenses is crucially important when the medium of delivering the content is not digital. In the digital world, the cost of pushing bits of information to a mobile phone anywhere in the world is negligible. But to convert those digital bits into a physical format like books or DVDs costs real money (and time). Discipleship resources that are encumbered by a “non-commercial use only” condition are handicapped in these contexts because they are legally prevented from being part of a commercial process that would otherwise cover the expense of translation, adaptation, and redistribution.

In order to help meet the need of the global church for discipleship resources, portable and inexpensive “print on demand” systems have been developed for use in remote regions of the world. These print systems can run completely off the grid on solar power and can turn out over 10,000 two-hundred-page books a year at a little over one dollar a book. The technology is already developed, the system works. But apart from discipleship resources released under an open license that does not include a “non-commercial use only” condition, the global church still faces an insurmountable obstacle when attempting to get those books into the hands of the people who need them.

In addition to paying the wages of the translators, these ministry printshops must be able to sell the printed books in order to pay for the cost of ink, paper, replacement parts, and the wages of the press operators. Content released with a “non-commercial use only” condition cannot be legally redistributed in this way. But content released under an Attribution-ShareAlike License can. And because of it, the content can be extended by the global church to reach much farther than even the biggest professional publishing houses can reach.

The presence of a “non-commercial use only” condition can severely restrict how content can be used, even when it is not being directly sold or part of a traditional commercial process. CBC/Radio-Canada, Canada’s national public broadcaster, used to include music that was released under Creative Commons licenses. But without explanation, they stopped doing so in 2010. An animated discussion broke out on the comments section of their website as listeners demanded to know why they had completely stopped using music released under Creative Commons licenses.

Eventually, the CBC/Radio-Canada Programming Director Chris Boyce gave an explanation:

The issue with our use of Creative Commons music is that a lot of our content is readily available on a multitude of platforms, some of which are deemed to be ‘commercial’ in nature (e.g. streaming with pre-roll ads, or pay for download on iTunes) and currently the vast majority of the music available under a Creative Commons license prohibits commercial use.3

The use of advertising to support access to otherwise free content is a common means of funding ministry. Many Christian radio stations are built on that model, as are some Christian magazines, and countless Christian websites. But the use of content in conjunction with advertising is often considered a commercial use. If you recall the sample license that was included at the beginning of chapter 9 (with the long list of what you were not allowed to do with the content), the terms of that license could not be more clear about the association of advertising with commercial use of the content:

Provided that you… do not embed or otherwise exploit The Owner’s product for commercial gain (which includes, for example and without limitation, selling advertising on your site or otherwise monetizing any element of your site which contains The Owner’s brand)…

In 2008, Creative Commons attempted to help clear up the ambiguity by commissioning a study from a professional market research firm to explore understandings of the terms “commercial use” and “non-commercial use” among Internet users when used in the context of content found online. The findings suggest that creators and users approach the question of noncommercial use similarly:

Both creators and users generally consider uses that earn users money or involve online advertising to be commercial, while uses by organizations, by individuals, or for charitable purposes are less commercial but not decidedly non-commercial.4

Content that is released with a “non-commercial use only” condition is likely to be incompatible with any of the advertising-based means of distributing Christian content. This includes advertisements on websites, radio stations, publications, even in smartphone applications that integrate mobile advertisements that provide a revenue stream to the creator of the application.

Prevents Good Things

Not only does the “non-commercial use only” condition severely restrict how far content can go and where it can be used, it also prevents good things from happening to the content. Companies and organizations that are legally allowed to recover their expenses by selling what they create from the content are in a position to make considerable improvements to the content that benefit everyone (because of the “ShareAlike” condition). The Attribution-ShareAlike License tends to encourage partnership in mutually beneficial projects that include a commercial element to them. This happened with Wikipedia and a German company called Direct Media Publishing.

In 2004, Direct Media made select portions of the German language version of Wikipedia—which is released under an Attribution-ShareAlike License5—available on CD, for sale. In preparation for publishing the CD, they worked together with the German Wikipedia community to improve the content in the selected articles to get the content to a publishable level. They fixed typos, adjusted the wording, and improved the clarity of the articles. Because of the “ShareAlike” condition, all the improvements made by Direct Media were shared back to the community, not kept for themselves to provide marketing leverage.

But because a “non-commercial use only” condition is not part of the license, Direct Media was legally able to sell the finished CD, which became a bestseller on the German version of Amazon’s online store. Due to the “ShareAlike” condition in the license, the community benefited from Direct Media’s work, and due to the absence of a “non-commercial use only” condition, Direct Media was able to make their project financially viable and beneficial to them. In fact, the CD was so successful that the next year DirectMedia released an updated DVD of over 200,000 articles, available for sale as well as a free download. One Euro from the sale of every DVD went to supporting the German Wikimedia foundation. This was a voluntary donation, as there is no requirement for it in the Attribution-ShareAlike License.

This same kind of thing happens in the open-source software world. We have seen how the Linux operating system is developed by many different contributors, including over 600 commercial companies. Because the license under which the source code is released does not prevent commercial use of the software but does require that any improvements to the software be released under the same license (functionally similar to the Attribution-ShareAlike License), everyone benefits from the improvements made by anyone else. The commercial companies, many of whom are fierce competitors, all work together to improve the software that benefits them all.

Makes the Global Church Work for Nothing

Here’s a question for you: Does the presence of a “non-commercial use only” condition mean that no money whatsoever can change hands in the use of this resource? We often do not even apply that same standard to ourselves when we give out free resources in large quantities. For example, consider the presenter of a seminar or Bible study group that prints out multiple pages of a resource for use by the attendees. The resource itself may be free, but there is often the expectation that an offering will be taken to help cover the expenses of the conference. Sometimes the free resource is given away with the request that everyone chip in a dollar to help cover the cost of reproducing the resource and making it available.

The global church must be allowed to have this freedom as well. If we say their translation and distribution of a discipleship resource must not include any financial transaction whatsoever, we create a distinction between “us” and “them” that is difficult to justify. They have the same costs and needs to recover their expenses, and in many economically disadvantaged parts of the world, the global church feels those costs much more acutely than we do. Unless they also are given the freedom to legally recover their expenses, we implicitly require that the global church work for nothing in the translation and distribution of discipleship resources.

The Bible is very clear that the worker is worthy of his wages. The Bible is also very clear about what God thinks of making people work for nothing. The prophet Jeremiah prophesied to Shallum, the son of Josiah, about his greed and tyranny:

"Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness,
his upper rooms by injustice,
making his own people work for nothing,
not paying them for their labor.
He says, ‘I will build myself a great palace
with spacious upper rooms.’
So he makes large windows in it,
panels it with cedar
and decorates it in red.

“Does it make you a king
to have more and more cedar?
Did not your father have food and drink?
He did what was right and just,
so all went well with him.
He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
and so all went well.
Is that not what it means to know me?”
declares the LORD.—Jeremiah 22:13–16, NIV, emphasis added

In the context of a global church in desperate need of discipleship resources, the point here is not that formal contracts for translation work are not being honored. The point is that telling the global church “you can use my content for your own spiritual growth!” but not allowing them to pay themselves even minimum wage in the work of translating the resource into their languages so that it can be used is effectively the same thing as expecting them to work for nothing.

For this reason, some qualify the “non-commercial use only” condition so that it allows people only to recover their expenses, nothing more. This sounds good, but creates its own problems.


What does it mean to “only cover your expenses” and, more importantly, who decides what qualifies as “covering expenses” and what crosses over into commercial use? Consider a DVD of free discipleship teaching videos that are released with a “you can only recover your expenses” condition. DVDs cost money to make and distribute, but what criteria determine whether the price tag for the DVD is commercial or merely covering expenses? Can I charge one dollar per DVD? Can I charge two dollars? Five? It probably depends on what it actually cost to create the DVD. Will an accounting be made to the copyright holder of every expense that went into the creation of the DVD, including the cost of the DVDs, mass replication, printing, shipping & handling, airfare to the target country, wages for the distributors, etc.? Can funds be solicited from others to distribute the free resources? Will the determination of “expenses only” or “commercial” be dependent on the economic context of different world regions? Who decides what those regions are and how the prices should fluctuate accordingly?

Including a condition that says “non-commercial use only but you can recover your expenses” can only mean one of three things:

  1. It is an ambiguous request that cannot be quantified and so will not be enforced

  2. It will be quantified and enforced

  3. It will be arbitrarily decided by the copyright holder and enforced.

In the first case, because of the lack of set criteria to determine what is commercial use and what is not, the condition in the license amounts to little more than a statement of what the owner of the content would prefer. There is no way for potential users to know in advance if their use of the content and the amount of money they are charging for the redistribution of it complies with the license. They are left to guess at whether their use of the resource is ethical or not.

Actual enforcement of a “non-commercial use only” condition in the second and third cases requires that there be an entity overseeing each and every use of every resource in every context, monitoring the amount of money that changes hands and ensuring that the resource is not used in such a way that it crosses their own, arbitrary line of what constitutes a commercial use. The existence of an entity in a position of authority to authorize or forbid the use of a resource like this is the antithesis to freedom.

It follows then, that a license with a “non-commercial use only” condition is actually not an “open” license. Content released under open licenses do not have these kinds of concerns associated with them. Open-licensed resources are freely available for anyone to access, build on, redistribute, and use without restriction or the concern that too much money was involved in the process.


The presence of the “ShareAlike” condition in the Attribution-ShareAlike License makes the presence of a “non-commercial use only” condition unnecessary for the prevention of flagrant, unchecked commercial exploitation of a discipleship resource. The license itself destroys the potential for monopoly of the resource, which is necessary for commercial exploitation to be possible. The lack of monopoly, combined with the “ShareAlike” condition that requires sharing back to the community whatever is created from the content, limits the possibility of commercial exploitation and encourages the possibility of commercial partnership.

If this were not the case and a “non-commercial use only” condition were actually necessary to prevent “going out of business (or ministry),” then why do so many of the most successful open-licensed projects not include the condition? The Linux operating system does not have it. The Open Street Map project uses an Attribution-ShareAlike License, as does Wikipedia. If a “non-commercial use only” condition were necessary to ensure their continued existence, they would have used a license that includes the condition.

These projects do not use licenses that include the condition, because the projects themselves exist for reasons that the contributors to the projects consider greater than making money from the content. Each one is intended to accomplish a purpose and meet a specific need for people all over the world. Linux provides a free computer operating system. Open Street Map provides free maps. Wikipedia provides free information. But none of these projects finds it necessary to include a “non-commercial use only” condition in order to keep the content free. They all realize that including such a condition would severely restrict the usefulness and reach of the content. They also realize that the “ShareAlike” condition is sufficient to prevent commercial exploitation without hindering the effectiveness of the project.

The Bible Is Not Silent about “Non-Commercial Use Only”

Not surprisingly, the Bible does not specifically mention “non-commercial use,” nor is there a Greek or Hebrew term in the original texts for “Intellectual Property Rights.” The concept of “Intellectual Property” as contrasted with “Physical Property” is a fairly recent, man-made invention. It used to be that information was as free as the air, but that is no longer the default in modern society. The Bible has much to say, however, about property, money, generosity, and the poor. These principles apply as much to Intellectual Property as they due to physical property.

Enduring Anything

Paul explained to the Corinthians that those who sow spiritual things have the right to reap material things (payment) for their work. But he also stated that a better way was to be willing to endure anything rather than make use of this right, when doing so would put an obstacle in the way of the Gospel:

Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ… I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision… What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.—1 Corinthians 9:12,15,18, ESV, emphasis added

Releasing a discipleship resource under an Attribution-ShareAlike License will likely result in making less money directly from that resource than could otherwise have been the case. Not only that, others might be able to make some money from it without needing to share the proceeds with you. We have already seen how flagrant exploitation of the content is unlikely, if not impossible—but that is not the point. The point is this: if releasing my content under an Attribution-ShareAlike License is necessary for the advance of the Gospel in every language and people group, am I willing to endure anything—including not making as much revenue from the resource—for the glory of God and the good of His Church?

The author of a book on spiritual maturity and freedom from sin was recently contacted by a well-known publisher requesting the rights to publish the book. Instead of signing an exclusive publishing deal, the author informed the publisher that they could publish it, but that the content of the book was being released under an open license for the good of the global church. The author put it this way:

When I released my book under an Attribution-ShareAlike License, I felt a little bit like Moses’ mother. Put your baby out there, and he will either be eaten by crocodiles or will save millions of people from slavery.6

This is the kind of willingness to endure anything that removes obstacles from the Gospel for the growth of the global church.

Loving the Global Church (As Yourself)

In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus told a story of a man who was attacked by robbers, beat up, and left for dead. He was in a bad way and unable to help himself, but neither a priest nor a Levite who happened to pass by was willing to help him. A Samaritan, however, social and religious outcast though he was, had compassion on him. He dressed the man’s wounds, took him to an inn and then did something amazing. He paid the innkeeper a significant amount of money to care for the man, with the promise of more money if the innkeeper incurred additional expenses in caring for the man.

The irony of the story is rich. The church leaders—the chosen ones who had the most reason to care for the man—turned a blind eye to the obvious need in front of them. They pretended like the urgent need facing them did not even exist, then passed by on the other side, presumably so they would not be hindered from continuing their “ministry.”

But the outsider—the one who had no obligation to do so—helped the man who was in distress and could not help himself. Not only did he prove to be the one who was merciful, but he took upon himself the financial expense of meeting the needs of someone who could not help himself, with no thought of repayment. He illustrates the principle that Jesus frequently emphasized: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:13).

The global church is in a spiritual famine of historic proportions. Those of us who own the discipleship resources they need have the opportunity to show mercy and help meet their need. Never in all of history have there been so many believers in so many people groups, speaking so many languages, who urgently need theological famine relief. They are unable to help themselves and they need mercy from those who will “love their neighbors as themselves” and willingly give up their right to financial reward in order to provide for their spiritual needs. They need discipleship resources available under licenses that do not restrict them from using any means necessary—even commercial ones—to make the content available in their own languages.

False Motives Still Build the Kingdom

One of the most common concerns that content owners have about releasing discipleship resources under open licenses that do not include a “non-commercial use only” condition is that a rival publisher could then take the content, print a million copies of it and make obscene amounts of money from it—money that never gets shared back to the original publisher. As we have already seen, this outcome is highly unlikely. But for the sake of argument, let us assume that someone does actually find a way to make loads of money from someone else’s free resource and they do so, without sharing any of the revenue back to the copyright holder. What does Scripture say about it?

It might not be what we want to hear, but the response modeled by the apostle Paul in Philippians 1:18 is: Rejoice! Rejoice, because now people who might not otherwise have received a copy of the resource now have the resource. True, the original publisher didn’t get paid for it. But the Kingdom of God was still advanced.

Although the context is different, the Biblical principle recorded in Paul’s letter to the Philippians is clearly applicable. While in prison for proclaiming the Gospel, he said this to the church in Philippi:

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.—Philippians 1:15-17 (ESV)

Paul’s adversaries were not sincere. They were preaching Christ from “envy and rivalry,” specifically and intentionally to afflict him while he was in prison. Paul, however, believed in the sovereignty of God and looked at the situation from the vantage point of God’s purposes, not his own well-being. From that perspective, Paul was able to see that the only thing that mattered was the advance of God’s Kingdom (“Christ is proclaimed”), even if it was being advanced by people who were motivated by envy and rivalry instead of a humble, God-given, holy ambition.

What does it matter? Just that in every way, whether out of false motives [i.e. a desire for financial gain by selling the discipleship resource of another without remuneration to them] or true [i.e. a desire to get the resource to the most people possible without any hindrance] Christ is proclaimed [i.e. the resource is made available to the global church without restriction for their spiritual maturity]. And in this I rejoice.—Philippians 1:18, emphasis added

The global church must have the freedom to recover their expenses and make their living from the Word. There is no other way for adequate discipleship resources to be able to go the distance to every people group in the world. Our strategies for fulfilling the Great Commission must start with the foundational belief in the sovereignty of a good and loving God whose purposes in Christ never fail. Even when He brings those purposes to pass in ways that do not maximize our own revenue stream.

Giving Without Pay

There is a clear Biblical precedent that connects the building of the Kingdom of God with the relinquishing of our rights to financial compensation. The connection is made by Jesus, when he sent out his disciples.

Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few. Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.” …Summoning His 12 disciples, He gave them authority over unclean spirits, to drive them out and to heal every disease and sickness… Jesus sent out these 12 after giving them instructions: “…As you go, announce this: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, drive out demons. You have received free of charge; give free of charge. Don’t take along gold, silver, or copper for your money-belts.”—Matthew 9:37-10:9, emphasis added

The cornerstone on which the Great Commission is built is that all authority in heaven and on earth belongs to Jesus. This includes authority over unclean spirits, sickness, and death. It also includes authority over everything pertaining to the financial matters of ministry. Jesus’ instruction “you have received free of charge; give free of charge” was intended to strengthen the disciples’ belief in the sovereignty of a good God who would meet their needs and provide for them.

We are, like the disciples, prone to worry about making ends meet. They worried about having enough food and drink, and about what they would wear. Jesus taught them that their only concern was to be about the advance of the Kingdom, not in providing for their own needs:

So don’t worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For the idolaters eagerly seek all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you. Therefore don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself.—Matthew 6:31-34

Anyone willing to release their rights to what they have freely received from God, for His glory and the advance of His Kingdom, can expect that God Himself will provide for their needs.


1 Cole, Richard G. “Reformation Printers: Unsung Heroes.” Sixteenth Century Journal 15, no. 3 (1984): 336. doi:10.2307/2540767.

2 Tom Standage, “Social media in the 16th Century: How Luther went viral,” The Economist (dec 2011),

3 Matthew Lasar, “Why the CBC banned Creative Commons music from its shows,” oct 2010,

4 “Defining Noncommercial,” n.d.,

5 At the time, the content in Wikipedia was licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License, which is nearly identical to the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.

6 Mary Swenson, “Key 4,” jun 2012