Art, God and Copyright

Imagine if the Sermon on the Mount had been protected by copyright law….or if Moses had required advance permission before anyone could copy the Ten Commandments. Would they have spread very quickly and become the religious icons that they have become?

The champions of copyright routinely claim that it is the best way to encourage and disseminate innovation. But in the past week, by odd coincidence, I’ve encountered two stories that show how the market-based paradigm of copyright law is stifling religiously inspired creativity. The two cases — one involving Indonesia batik designers and the other ministers who copy or emulate sermons from the Internet — show that copyright law is not a natural, inevitable system for regulating culture; it’s a belief-system ever bit as much as Christianity or Islam.

Consider the batik designers (and a thank-you to Lewis Hyde for alerting me to this story.) In the ancient royal city of Solo, one of the principal batik cities in Indonesia, artists have invented at least 500 unique batik motifs that cannot be found anywhere else. The quality and distinctiveness of the designs has attracted imitators, however, a development that has prompted Indonesian trade officials to ask the artists to copyright the works. As one Solo trade official complained, beautiful Solo batik motifs are being copied by companies in Yogyakarta, Pekalongan, Brebes, Madura and even by international corporations.

Here’s the man-bites-dog twist: the Solo artists don’t want to copyright their designs. They consider them a gift from God. To claim ownership in the designs would smack of egotistical pride and perhaps even seem blasphemous. As the head of the local Kauman Batik Tourism Group, Gunawan Setiawan, put it, “They [batik designers] believe that each time they create something, it is not they who worked, but it is God who worked through their human body and soul. Being grateful [to God] is sufficient for them.”

This is frustrating trade officials because the city wants to protect commerce in the batik designs via copyright law. Because so many designers refuse to attach their names to their batik creations, the designs are known only by motif names. As reported by the Jakarta Globe, only 10 motifs have been successfully included in an officially list of copyrighted designs. Some artists acknowledge their creations but have asked the authorities for minimal exposure. “I am afraid that other parties might register [the Solo batik motifs] because there are many batik cities in Indonesia,” said a Solo official.

A Solo tourism official worries that his town’s traditional ways of thinking — that God is seriously an inspiration for batik design — are just too vulnerable in this age of global market competition. Any company can — and has — claimed copyrights over Indonesian-designed batiks. The conundrum is that the artists believe they would be betraying the divine source of their inspiration were they to copyright their designs. And so by default, the market system is likely to colonize and eradicate the more vulnerable, commons-based modes of creativity.

To me, this story points up the need for Indonesian batik designers to develop their own design equivalent of the General Public License for software. Or they need to swallow hard and accept copyrights, but then assign them immediately to a collective entity that would put the designs under a Creative Commons NonCommercial ShareAlike license. This would prevent commercial appropriation and allow free use of the designs so long as they were used for noncommercial purposes and freely shared with others on the same terms.

It bears noting that anonymous, religiously inspired creativity is not without precedent. On the cover of Lewis Hyde’s wonderful book, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (this is the original subtitle, which I prefer), there is a painting, “Basket of Apples,” by an unknown artist(s) from the Shaker Community in Hancock, Massachusetts. Hyde explained the significance of the painting:

“The Shakers believed that they received their arts as gifts from the spiritual world. Persons who strove to become receptive of songs, dances, paintings, and so forth were said to be ‘laboring for a gift,” and the works that they created circulated as gifts within the community. Shaker artists were known as ‘instruments’; we know only a few of their names, for in general it was forbidden that they be known to any but the Church elders.”

A few years ago, there was a notable copyright dispute involving The Urantia Book, which is claimed by a community of believers as the revealed word of God. At some point, a faction of that community split off and wished to publish the book itself, in its own way — leading the other group to assert a copyright in the holy book. A particularly thorny jurisprudential question was identifying the legally cognizable author. It is difficult to serve a summons on God and compel Him to testify.

All of this leads me to wonder: Perhaps religion is the original open-source community. Except that spiritual seekers rarely resort to Caesar’s law to enforce their “rights.” The true believers tend to eschew legalisms (recall the parables of Jesus with the lawyers). Rather, they regard God’s gifts as so pervasive and plentiful that they don’t really need protection; the divine is omnipresent. For human law, however, jurisdiction must first be established.

So here’s a second story that provokes reflection on religion as an open-source community. Should it be ethically and legally acceptable to copy the sermons of another minister from the Internet?

As the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports, “Clergy who run short of time or inspiration can turn to a plethora of websites offering ideas, outlines and, if necessary, entire sermons that can be downloaded in a ready-to-read-Sunday-morning format.” Reporter Jeff Strickler counted near 20 online sermon services, including, Sermon Central, Sermon Seedbed and Some are free, some require subscriptions of $21.95 a month to search and download from an archive of more than 20,000 sermons.

The whole story is amusing because applying copyright to sermons is something of a category mistake — a superimposition of market norms on an activity that is entirely about “sharing the good news.” Why would anyone try to propertize and monetize the Word of God (as channeled through individual pastors)? Attribution is one thing — an ethical nod of respect to the (human) creator and a humility that it “originated” elsewhere. But it is another thing entirely to insist upon exclusivity and the capacity to make money from sermons.

We need to ask, therefore: Does copyrighting a sermon truly enhance its dissemination in this age of instant Internet access? Or is it a vestige of a time when a commercial marketplace for physical books was the best or only way to spread the Gospel in writing?

The Star Tribune noted, “The notion of preachers ‘borrowing’ material from one another is as old as preaching itself. ‘People have been stealing sermons since the beginning of time’,” said Rev. Dave Ridder of St. Paul. Moreover, ministers whose works are copied aren’t likely to complain. They’re flattered.

Still, it drives the guardians of market culture mad, simply mad, to think that somewhere, somehow, someone is getting something of value for free. Funny thing…. there’s a term for that: Amazing Grace.