Back to Top

Appendix E: Sustainable Models for Building the Christian Commons

Four models for the building the Christian Commons are described below. The models involve creating new discipleship resources collaboratively, voluntarily releasing works openly before the copyright term expires, sponsoring the creation of open-licensed works, and gifting discipleship resources to the global church.

Collaboratively-Created Resources

One of the primary means of building the Christian Commons is by the open collaboration of the global church. Open collaboration (based on a model of social production) is an extremely powerful, inexpensive, and efficient means of creating vast amounts of content. This content, when it is in a well-managed system like a wiki, tends to progressively improve in quality over time. We have seen that the global church is already on the rise and ready to join in the task of equipping themselves with discipleship resources. Open collaboration as a global church enables anyone, anywhere to work together to create and translate discipleship resources in any language at the same time. This massively parallel approach has the potential to provide discipleship resources in any language very quickly.

It is unrealistic to expect that a single organization (or any number of formal partnerships) could ever develop adequate capacity to undertake and maintain translation projects (and revisions of translations) for all the discipleship resources needed by believers in thousands of languages, all at the same time, and on into the future. A more effective means of meeting this need is for the global church to openly collaborate toward this end. By working in parallel, the body of Christ all over the world will be able to accomplish far more, at far less cost, and in far less time than would otherwise be possible.

The concept of open collaboration is related to the concept of cognitive surplus, the spare brainpower that is available outside of a person’s vocation. In essence, cognitive surplus is both an individual’s free time as well as the aggregate free time of every individual in a group. How much surplus are we talking about? In Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky suggests using a unit of measurement to help understand how much cognitive surplus is actually available: the number of hours it took to create the English-language version of Wikipedia. It contains over 3 million articles (1,600+ volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica). According to studies done by IBM researcher Martin Wattenberg, the approximate time it took to create this massive resource is one hundred million hours. That is a lot of time, but what is even more interesting is how this relates to the amount of time spent in other activities, namely watching television.

Americans watch roughly two hundred billion hours of TV every year. That represents about two thousand Wikipedias’ projects’ worth of free time annually. Even tiny subsets of this time are enormous: we spend roughly a hundred million hours every weekend just watching commercials. This is a pretty big surplus. People who ask “Where do they find the time?” about those who work on Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, relative to the aggregate free time we all possess.1

If Americans alone have more than two hundred billion hours of cognitive surplus every year, how much cognitive surplus is available in the entire global church, that numbers more than one billion people (and some put the number closer to two billion)? To put this into perspective, look at it this way: if we assume the entire global church numbers one billion people and one out of every ten of these Christians worldwide gives only one hour of their time a month (one hundred million hours), their aggregate time would be enough to create an amount of content equivalent to the entire English version of Wikipedia each month. What we need in order to equip the global church with discipleship resources is not more people, more time, or more money. What we need is for the global church to work together in ways that make the most of the technology and the resources we already have.

When the global church openly collaborates, their aggregate knowledge and available time become a massive resource that dwarfs the immense need for discipleship resources in every language of the world. Given the highly successful track record of openly collaborative projects, there is good reason to believe that this model will be very effective in the creation of vast numbers of discipleship resources of the highest quality in every language. New discipleship resources (like Bible translations, Bible study notes, Bible encyclopedias, concordances, etc.) can be created and translated into any language in less time and with less expense than would otherwise be possible. Open collaboration harnesses the cognitive surplus of the global church to create massive amounts of discipleship resources, without restricting them using traditional licensing in order to generate a revenue stream from them.

Voluntary Early Release of Content

If you have ever tried to obtain a copy of an out-of-print book that was first published in the twentieth century, you may have discovered that it can be a very difficult feat to accomplish. In fact, as much as 95% of books written in the last one hundred years are out of print, making them difficult (if not impossible) to access.2 The books are of virtually no commercial value anymore, so they are unlikely to be digitized or reprinted by the publisher. But these books are also still restricted by copyright, so they cannot be digitized and freely distributed by others either.

It is likely that the percentages are very similar for books that are specifically Christian in focus and worldview, although the exact numbers are not known. The content contained in many of these Christian books would be of significant value to the global church, but they are unlikely to be legally accessible to them anytime for many decades. Until seventy years after the death of the author—when the book passes into the Public Domain—Christian books like these cannot be digitized, translated, or freely redistributed by others. They are effectively as lost to the global church as if they had never been written.

There is an intriguing twist to this dilemma. Up until 1976, books written in the U.S. were covered by copyright restrictions that lasted for twenty-eight years, at which point the books would pass into the Public Domain. If the copyright holder wanted to extend the copyright on their work after the twenty-eight years ended, they had to apply for an extension. Here is where things get interesting: 85% of works that were created under these copyright terms never had their copyright renewed and were released into the Public Domain after twenty-eight years.3 From this we can conclude that for nearly nine out of ten works, there was no longer commercial benefit in copyright terms that extended longer than twenty-eight years. If there had been, it is likely the copyright would have been renewed so the copyright holder could continue leveraging the restrictions afforded to them by copyright law to perpetuate the revenue stream.

Christian authors and publishers are finding the same thing. Within a few years after publishing, the full commercial benefit of some books has already been realized. Which leads to this question: what if Christian content creators (or copyright holders) voluntarily released their content into the Christian Commons before the term of their government granted copyright expires, for the good of the global church? They could set an arbitrary length of time–maybe seven years (using the length of time set in Deuteronomy 15)–during which time they would sell the resource to recover their expenses, then release it into the Christian Commons. Or they might sell the resource until they receive the payment for the work done during the creation of the resource, then release it. Copyright law says the content creator can be paid for the creation of a work for their entire lifetime plus seventy years after their death (in the U.S., and with similar restrictions in most other parts of the world). But there is no reason the creator of the content cannot voluntarily shorten the length of their own exclusive use of their content, for the good of the global church.

A note on this approach is in order, however. Before publishing, authors of books are often required to sign over some (or all) of their rights to a publisher. It is the publishers, not the authors, who hold all the cards in these situations. This results in significant complications, especially since half of Christian content is published by secular publishers who are unlikely to have any interest in spiritual or other non-economic motives for releasing copyright restrictions on what they own.4 This suggests, then, that Christian publishing companies (and others who own the rights to discipleship resources) have a tremendous opportunity to bless the global church by releasing some of the rights to some of what they own.

Sponsored Works

Sponsoring the creation of discipleship resources is a very effective and widely-used approach to creating content. Churches pay the salary of their pastor while on sabbatical to write a book or sermon series. Seminaries pay the professor who writes a commentary or teaching curriculum. Donations are collected to fund the translation of an evangelistic video into another language. Foundations provide the capital to extend the reach of a discipleship resource into other languages. There are many variations on the same theme.

What if sponsors of discipleship resources were to decide they do not want to sponsor a work that will be restricted under a license that necessarily withholds it from Christians speaking the vast majority of languages? Instead of expecting that the people being paid to create resource will maintain the “all rights reserved” afforded to them by copyright law (to gain additional revenue from the sale or exclusive licensing of the resource), there is an alternative. The funders of the resource could provide the funding to the content creators on the condition that the resource be released under an open license and into the Christian Commons so that the entire global church could benefit from it without restriction. By so doing, the funders maximize the missiological value of their investment.

This approach has significant merit, but potential funders need to understand that the dual nature of traditional discipleship resources can complicate things. Many discipleship resources serve a two-fold purpose: ministry tool and revenue generator, either from direct sales or donations to the exclusive owner. Because of this two-fold purpose, the sponsors of a discipleship resource (e.g. donors, foundations, etc.) often balk at supporting a project which does not make the best use of commercial opportunities. After all, if they are giving their hard-earned money to the project, it could be alarming to find that others were allowed to use the resource without being required to pay royalties back to the project.

So content creators who want to release their discipleship resources under an open license like the Attribution-ShareAlike License face a conundrum. If they do not release their content under an open license, they necessarily cut out the vast majority of the global church from joining in to legally translate the discipleship resource into the thousands of languages that need it. But if they do release the content under an open license, there may be a concern that their sponsors will withhold the funding they need, because they are not restricting the content so as to maximize revenue.

The problem with the “our sponsors might get mad if we release the resource under Attribution-ShareAlike” is often based on an incorrect assumption about how to get discipleship resources to those who need them. Ironically, this incorrect assumption actually used to be the correct assumption. It has become incorrect, only because a new model now exists that was not even an option a decade ago.

It used to be that there was only one way of getting discipleship resources to those who needed them: by using a private production model to create restricted access content that was distributed through limited channels as both a ministry tool and also a revenue generator (to fund more ministry). With the rise of the Digital Age and the advance of the Internet and mobile phones around the world, the ministry landscape has changed drastically in the last decade. We now have the ability to use an “open” approach to equip the global church—an approach that uses a social production model in the creation and translation of content. The content in the “open” model has only one purpose: ministry. Because the resources are not intended to generate income, they can be released from the traditional licensing model restrictions that limit the reach of the content. The resources can be legally distributed by any number of distributors, exclusively as a ministry tool. However, until sponsors understand that a project can only be “open” when the content it creates is legally “open-licensed,” there will likely be confusion and concern about the apparent failure of the content owners to legally lock it down.

When considering the possibility of funding a project to create discipleship resources, a potential sponsor wants to be sure that the content is as effective as possible.5 The traditional means of ensuring effectiveness was to use a strategy that locks out competitors, unless they are willing to pay a license fee. Going this route is fine, but doing so also prevents the majority of the global church from ever getting access to that resource. There is no way around it—that is the nature of the traditional model that depends on restricting access to (and use of) the content.

A Gift of Intellectual Property

The Biblical concept of giving to God a portion of what we have may be an effective model for meeting the needs of the global church. This is not to suggest that everyone should give away all their discipleship resources under an open license and then attempt to develop a completely new model for funding the creation of additional resources. Instead, content creators could consider giving a portion of what they have (or what they create in the future) to meet the needs of the global church, by releasing it into the Christian Commons under an open license. What would happen if just a small portion of the hundreds of new discipleship resources created each year were voluntarily released under an Attribution-ShareAlike License for the good of the global church?

If this were to happen, the global church could find themselves going from famine to feast in very little time. Translation of the content would still be needed, and translating a book is not a trivial undertaking. But compared to getting the legal right to translate the content, the translation itself is often the easy part. If those who own the content were to voluntarily give a portion of what they have by releasing it under an open license, the global church would be tremendously blessed.

Note that this gift of Intellectual Property is not referring to a gift from the revenue generated by selling the content. Nor is it referring to giving “free of charge” access to otherwise completely restricted content. It is referring to a voluntary release of the restrictions on the “firstfruits” of the content itself, putting it into the Christian Commons. In keeping with the Biblical “firstfruits” principle, these would be the best discipleship resources we have—those that would be of the greatest usefulness to the global church.


1 Shirky, Cognitive Surplus, 10.

2 Boyle, The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind, 10.

3 Ibid, 9.

4 Ted Olsen, “HarperCollins Buys Thomas Nelson, Will Control 50% of Christian Publishing Market,” oct 2011,

5 A useful resource for foundations and other sponsors considering the possibility of funding content-creation projects using open licenses is Phil Malone“An Evaluation of Private Foundation Copyright Licensing Policies, Practices and Opportunities” (2009),