How free should the Catechism be?

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.

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24 Responses to How free should the Catechism be?

  1. Several corrections:

    (1) Translations of the Small Catechism are widely available, and free, and in the public domain, all over the Internet. You can, for example, obtain the entire Book of Concord, including the SC here:

    (2) A myriad of translations, available for free, can be pasted/posted/plastered anywhere.

    (3) The most recent English translation is what is copyrighted and will remain so, for the reasons stated in my blog.

    (4) Congregations and persons anywhere on the Internet can link in to the copyrighted text published by CPH. This is not a barrier, at all, to its use on the Internet, so your suggestion that somehow this is some kind of restriction is, fundamentally, false as well. See:

    (5) The claim that somehow an “explorer” is unable to find the Small Catechism and can only but engage in illegal activity to do so is incorrect.

    Please stop spreading false information.

  2. John H says:

    Revd McCain: it wasn’t my intention to make it sound as if an “explorer” would need to engage in “illegal activity”. I was referring to the fact I adapted the Catechism to fit my more “Reformed” theology at that time, which certainly would infringe copyright (certainly under UK copyright law). As that point wasn’t clear, I’ve removed the statement from my post.

    I realise that other translations are widely available, but as you will be aware there is a strong pastoral and catechetical tradition within Lutheranism of using a single, consistent translation (based, not least, on Luther’s own introduction to the Catechism). As the 1986 translation is the one used by most churches in catechesis, that would be the best version to make available for other uses.

    I would really appreciate it if you were able to engage with the substance of my post, which is that releasing under a Creative Commons licence:

    (a) would not be putting the 1986 translation in the “public domain”, but would ensure that copyright ownership and the commercial publishing monopoly remained with CPH;

    (b) would not imperil CPH’s sales, as (i) I assume the largest proportion of revenue comes from the hardback books, which would remain “all rights reserved”; (ii) as for the tract editions, the most likely people to produce their own copies of this would be Lutheran congregations, who are already permitted to do so under the existing copyright notice.

    The “reasons stated on your blog” for retaining an “all rights reserved” approach are that any change to this would mean CPH’s Catechism sales would collapse and all the LSB, TLSB, TDP and so on would become impossible to produce. I’ve tried to put forward in this post a serious, considered, constructive argument as to why I believe that is not the case, and why CPH’s fears here are unfounded. If I’m wrong then please show me how and where, rather than referring back to a blog post which was arguing against a course of action that I am not advocating (putting the Catechism in the “public domain”).

  3. Thank you for this post. I once asked, unsuccessfully, for Augsburg Fortress to grant permission for me to post online a slightly edited version of one of their liturgical texts (Responsive Prayer). I’ve re-opened the issue with them, and am awaiting a response.

    In an electronic era it seems that core resources of our tradition – primary liturgical texts and the small catechism (which are largely edited versions of materials that were written perhaps hundreds of years ago and have been shaped by the church catholic for generations) – can and should be placed either in the public domain or under a less restrictive license, as you mention above. Annotations, study notes, and new prayers and liturgical material that are updated regularly (ie, on Augsburg Fortress’ website) can properly fall under copyright restrictions, but core liturgical and catechetical materials in our worship books, which are central to our identity as Lutherans and which were produced by the Church Expectant in generations gone by, should be freely shared with the people in our pews and the public at large, rather than hidden behind a mighty fortress of copyright law.

    I note that the Episcopal Church releases the liturgical material from the Book of Common Prayer into the public domain – a gift they freely give to the church and world.

  4. PS. To be clear, I believe musical settings can be protected by copyright. It’s the liturgical texts that I would love to see released from copyright captivity … particularly since these texts are hundreds of years old and Hippolytus and his heirs aren’t getting any commission … 😉

    I wrote about my experience with seeking permission to post liturgical material online, two years ago, here: If you read that post you see that I do a balancing act of understanding yet disagreeing with AF’s position. I’m of two minds, but I increasingly believe that our church should release these central, ancient materials for non-commercial use with few restrictions.

  5. frank sonnek says:

    Is there maybe another dynamic at play here in the background? sort of like people trying to pass off the augsburg confessions “variata” as the real deal? I find myself with this mentality thinking I need to be a guard dog at the gate. The internet makes this position untenable.

    We need to go with the flow. Some like you initially, will take Lutheran stuff and tweak it with Reformed stuff. Ok. I don´t like that. But look where you ended up. And some will not end up where you did, but the center of gravity of the dialog will shift. We maybe have to content ourselfs as Lutherans with influencing the direction and shape of the process and doing our good works and releasing ownership of them without having any control over the end results.

    Alcholics Anonymous phrase this as “stay in the process and out of the results”. Vocation in faith.

  6. John, you are wrong for the reasons stipulated in my blog post and elaborate on here.

    You keep making assertions that are simply incorrect, since they are founded on what is, on your part, absolute ignorance, you would do well to stop predicating arguments you are making based on absolute zero factual knowledge on your part.

    We publish the SC across numerous resources, not simply/only in the form of a single book.

    Your only option at this point is to call me a bald-faced liar, as your CC buddy did via Twitter. Feel free to do that.

    But facts are stubborn things and notwithstanding your arguments based on ignorance, the facts are all that matter.

  7. John H says:

    Revd McCain: please don’t comment on my blog if you’re not prepared to address the specific issues raised, or if you’re not prepared to recognise the possibility of honest disagreement.

    My question has been: in what way would non-commercial CC licensing of the Catechism threaten CPH’s sales of its (very many and varied – I never suggested otherwise, even if I only singled out some particular examples) commercial products based on the Catechism, especially given the existing exemptions for those most likely to exercise the CC licence rights anyway. Neither your blog post nor your comments here have, as far as I can tell, answered that specific question.

    If there are “stubborn facts” of which I am in “absolute ignorance” then please enlighten me. But please don’t simply use my blog to insult me (“absolute zero factual knowledge”), patronise me (“facts are stubborn things”) and put words in my mouth (“your only option at this point is to call me a bald-faced liar” – what an extraordinary statement; it would never have occurred to me to do so).

  8. What’s wrong with all the public domain versions available at

  9. John H says:

    Greg: nothing, except that (as I pointed out above) most Lutherans prefer to stick to a single version of the Catechism for catechetical/pastoral reasons. See Luther’s introduction to the Catechism:

    In the first place, let the preacher above all be careful to avoid many kinds of or various texts and forms of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the Sacraments, etc., but choose one form to which he adheres, and which he inculcates all the time, year after year. For young and simple people must be taught by uniform, settled texts and forms, otherwise they easily become confused when the teacher to-day teaches them thus, and in a year some other way, as if he wished to make improvements, and thus all effort and labor is lost.

    But yes, clearly there is now a need for a modern-language, freely-licensed version of the Catechism, given that CPH’s position against it is so strong. Watch this space…

  10. I also don’t buy that CPH has to subsidize this and that to make a profit. They may need to learn how to market, promote, etc. Find channels for their books into popular bookstore shelves. But they could make a profit using many of their products, not just the small catechism. And I would like to see them subsidizing the catechism, rather than the other way around. I mean that is at the core of what it means to be Lutheran, we should be handing those things out like candy.

  11. Rev. Alex Klages says:

    Such a translation exists; see Robert Smith’s Lutheran equivalent of the Gutenberg Project (I think he calls it the Wittenberg Project). He has a freely usable, public domain modern translation of the Small Catechism (and a number of other things) available there.

  12. John, I’ve already answered you, several times. We are not going to permit “non commercial” CC distribution via the Internet of this core intellectual property. If you want to know the reasons why, read my blog post. CC is a nice little fantasy, which no major publisher is using in any significant ongoing way to allow distribution of core and essential intellectual properties.

    There comes a time when one simply must realize one is dealing with invincible ignorance, and move on. That time has come with this conversation.

  13. Rick Ritchie says:

    It is interesting that when you go to the LCMS official website, contents page for the Lutheran confessions says this:

    “These texts are in the public domain and may be copied and distributed freely. The source of these translations is Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921).”

    Yet then the Small Catechism link goes to a copyrighted page.

    It appears that others have agreed with John on the wisdom of putting the public domain texts out there as the public face of the church. I don’t know whether the Small Catechism was originally from the 1921 edition and then later switched, or if maybe this being the lone exception, its different status was just not noted on the page.

  14. Very revealing conversation, very revealing.
    Well I hope that the convention goes along with my friend’s, Bryan Wolfmueller, and petitions publicly that CPH get rid of the copyright.
    The more and more I think about this the more stupid it seems that CPH subsidizes other books with a profit they make from the small catechism. It seems that just keeping the copyright on the explanation part would be enough to insure their profit margin, but…
    There are other ways, there are other ways.

  15. Rick Ritchie says:

    I forgot about the Wayback machine. At the Internet Archive, I found the old link. It was to the public domain edition of the Small Catechism:

  16. I’m not competent, or inclined, to pronounce on the commercial ins and outs. However, with all due respect to my internet friend, Pastor McCain, I am compelled to say this:

    As Bror puts it, this conversation is very revealing. And not always very edifying. I am reminded of the tendency in the past of some Lutheran theologians to call the symbolic view of the Lord’s Supper “the Reformed lie”, as if the Reformed were fully aware of the truth but out there to deceive people. People may well be in error without being malicious. And if that is the case, surely the right thing to do is to point out their error, preferably without inflammatory adjectives. If they fail to see the point, the question that raises is whether they are slow, or obtuse, or whether there is something wrong with the explanation. And if they still don’t see the point, how about “Well, I’m sorry you disagree.”?

    Secondly, on the commercial rights issue: is the translation of the Small Catechism a core intellectual (= commercial) property of CPH, or a core theological property of the Church? If you want a cash cow to subsidise loss-bearing products, I suggest that the text of the Small Catechism is, from a theological, pastoral and practical viewpoint, a poor choice. I don’t know if it’s the only choice, but I very much doubt it. And if I’m wrong, I would like to be entitled to my opinion and the opportunity for dispassionate dialogue.

    Thirdly, on the alternatives: John hits the nail on the head with the question of the uniformity of translation for pedagogical reasons, which after all is a key principle of the Catechism itself. I think the 1986 translation stinks to high heaven (“satanic arts” — for Pete’s sake!) and would dearly love to take, or make, a better translation for the church’s use. However, it’s what we’ve got, and changing again would just leave us in a worse pedagogical mess than we already have. It’s bad enough to have the “and with thy spirit/and with your spirit/and also with you” mess across the Lutheran Service Book.

    I doubt anything will change, but it’s worth persisting with the question.

  17. Well said Tapani.

  18. John H says:

    I’ve had to delete a couple of comments off this thread overnight. Let’s try to keep this civil, folks.

    Worst-case scenario is that Matthew 5:43-45 applies. However strongly you feel about the person on the other side of this issue from you – even if you feel so strongly about him as to regard him as your “enemy” – the sun still rose on him this morning, and when it rains his garden will benefit along with everyone else’s. I suggest we all try to follow the Father’s example here…

    (Oh, and another thing: please leave a working email address when commenting, so I don’t have to post messages like this on the blog itself!)

  19. The reasons why we are not releasing the text of The LCMS catechism into the public domain, or make available for publishing digitally on the Internet have been stated, clearly.

    The opportunities for individual congregations to use the text, as they wish, for their ministry purposes, have been made clear.

    The opportunity to point others to the SC text that we hold copyright on is open to anyone, at any time, on th Internet. This has been made clear.

    Tapani, I’m sorry you disagree.

  20. Pastor McCain,

    Thank you.

    A quick question to clarify one point touched on by John in the original post: Is it within the copyright arrangements to alter spelling, punctuation, etc., to suit local use (e.g. British English)?

  21. Tapani,

    We’d have to review and approve these changes, but I’m definitely willing to take a look at whatever you’d like to send to see what might be possible.


  22. I just might do that! Thanks.


  23. Pingback: The Small Catechism set free | Curlew River

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