Yesterday on Twitter there was a discussion concerning the 1986 edition of Luther’s Small Catechism and how freely available this should be. Revd Paul McCain gave an impassioned defence of the current copyright position, and rejected calls for it to be made available under some form of Creative Commons licence. He went on to explain his position in this post on his blog. I’d like to respond to Revd McCain’s argument in this post, which I hope can generate more light than the heat which I admit to having helped stoke up on Twitter yesterday.
The core of Revd McCain’s argument is this: the Small Catechism is “core intellectual property” of CPH publishers, and the profits made from sales of the Catechism are then used by CPH to fund publications that would otherwise be unsustainable: the Lutheran Service Book, the Lutheran Study Bible, the Treasury of Daily Prayer, and so on. Making the Small Catechism “public domain” would imperil CPH’s sales and make those other publications impossible to produce.
I can fully understand CPH’s position here, and wouldn’t want to propose anything that would threaten the good work they are doing in producing some really high quality material. But I think their fears may be misplaced, as can be seen if we look more closely at what was being proposed and how it compares to the current position.First off, while Revd McCain refers to putting the Small Catechism in the “public domain”, that is certainly not what I was proposing in yesterday’s conversation. The licence I’d propose is something like the Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence. This would enable people to copy, use and adapt (e.g. anglicising) the text of the Catechism, but with CPH continuing to retain the monopoly on commercial publication. If that were felt to be too broad, an alternative would be the Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works licence, which would prevent adaptation without consent. The point in each case though is that the Catechism would not be in the “public domain”, but would remain under CPH’s ownership and control.
How does this compare with the current position? Well, first off we need to consider the different versions of the Catechism that are produced by CPH. The most familiar one for many Lutherans is the hardback “Small Catechism with Explanation”, which contains the Catechism text itself along with around 250 pages of Q&As that are used to explain the Catechism to those preparing for confirmation. In addition there are editions that contain just the Catechism, in tract or booklet form.
Second, as Revd McCain points out, the Catechism is indeed available without charge online. That said, “available without charge” is not the same thing as “free” (where I mean “free as in free speech” rather than “free as in free beer”, to use the old distinction popular in the context of free software).
But here’s the crucial point. The copyright notice for the online version includes the following:
All rights reserved. Other than reproduction in whole or in part for noncommercial personal, congregational, or classroom use, no part of this material may be reproduced or stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without prior written permission of Concordia Publishing House.
The implication of the notice is that reproduction of the Catechism text is permissible for non-commercial “personal, congregational or classroom use”. So a congregation that wanted to could already produce their own version of the Catechism text (say as a booklet), without any permission from or payment to CPH. Similarly for individuals wanting to produce their own copies of the Catechism for personal use.
This current position exists without, it seems, in any way imperilling or reducing CPH’s income from published versions of the Catechism. This is unsurprising: most Lutheran churches use the hardback edition for confirmation classes, and would continue to do so. Similarly for most churches it is easier to buy the tract edition than to produce their own.
So using a Creative Commons licence would in no way threaten CPH’s revenue, because the people most likely to make use of it already have the benefit of the existing permissions, and yet – for good practical and pastoral reasons – continue to purchase copies from CPH. There is no reason to believe they would stop doing so.
What a Creative Commons licence would do is make it clearer that congregations can use the Catechism missionally (for example, by including it on their own website). If the first of the licences suggested above were used, it would allow other Lutheran churches to adapt the Catechism to suit their own local conditions (e.g. adapting for British English).
Above all, though, it would be an important symbolic move: a clear statement by the Lutheran church that the Small Catechism is not just its “core intellectual property” for its own internal use, but its “chief manifesto” and a gift to the entire church. There is so much the whole church of Christ can gain from the Small Catechism being made more widely available, and licensing it more freely would be a clear statement to the wider church that we want them to make use of the Catechism to their benefit – rather than expecting them to pick their way through a legalistic copyright notice and try to work out whether they qualify for the exceptions.
To put it at its most shallow: it would be good PR.
So I would ask CPH to give serious consideration to this. I don’t have access to your sales figures for the various editions of the Catechism, but I would invite you to take a good, close look at them, and ask how many of those sales would really be lost if non-commercial use of the Catechism were widened further than is already permitted.
And I’d also ask you to see the wider picture: the person who downloads a copy of the Catechism today may be the explorer of (or even convert to) Lutheranism who buys a number of books from you later. That’s certainly my story.