If technology is behind many evils, although I wouldn't put it at the top of the list, the aggressive lobbying of publishers for expansion of their copyrights would be way up there. You know a recurrent theme here is the click we all are forced to perform before new software installations and updates: "Yes, I've read and agree with your 10,000 words of legalese here binding me to give notice to Apple if I ever put on a pair of socks again without explicit permission from Apple's in-house socks permissions department. And no, I will never, ever eat an apple again without paying you a user fee. Promise and cross my heart." You know the routines and the lies it's made pervasive.
But this is almost the least toxic part of the abuse of copyright, today. We have Christians threatening lawsuits against those who copy works in the public domain when those works are not and cannot be covered by copyright, so their threat is a lie. We have Bibles copyrighted when the Holy Spirit inspired every word, and Moses, Kings David and Solomon, and the Apostle Paul did the work and have been dead for many centuries. We have Mickey Mouse getting an extension of royalties for Disney simply because he has well-paid lawyers and lobbyists buying legislators who think making the Disney corporation filthy richer is fine because Disney is next to apple pie and motherhood.
It's a mess and we all need to remind ourselves that there's another way for believers... When David and I were selling John Piper, Paige Patterson, Vern Poythress, Lane Dennis, Wayne Grudem, and R. C. Sproul on the necessity of coming out with a new Bible translation to replace the NIV in the pews and homes of Evangelicals, our long background watching Bible and other Christian publishing up close and personal in Wheaton, particularly through our own familes, led us to propose that the ESV be published with the copyright only doing one thing: protecting the integrity of the text. We told the men that we ought to return to the patron model for the funding of the work of revising the RSV. Get one or two rich men to pay some men to do the revision and then Crossway (and any other publisher who wanted to) could issue the ESV for anyone and everyone to print or distribute in any way they wanted as long as they didn't violate the integrity of the text.
Of course, this is not the way it went and Crossway now has its cash-cow. Thankfully, it's been fairly free-handed in allowing the distribution of the e-text on the internet, but for them this is simply good business. Back in the late nineties, I convinced Lane Dennis to allow us at CBMW to place Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood on the web for free distribution (don't let the "posted" dates confuse you—they're wrong) of the e-text. One year later they told me their sales had gone up ten percent that year. Crossway then became a believer in internet distribution juicing other sales, and concerning the ESV, I'm sure the concept has been proven in spades.
No Bible should ever be copyrighted and the truth of the matter is partly seen in the fact that the Nestle-Aland critical text is up to the 28th edition, now. Each edition claims to be getting closer and closer and closer to the original Hebrew and Greek text and yet that simple fact strikes no one and leads to no ironic statements. Think about it: the German and United Bible Societies hold copyright on what they tell us are the actual Hebrew and Greek words inspired by God (the "base" or "initial text") and they use the force of law to bar anyone anywhere from copying God's inspired original Hebrew and Greek words without paying them for the privilege. But hey, who knows; maybe the Apostle Paul required each congregational reading of his letters to have an offering taken afterwards which would be sent to him for his support as he worked on the next letter? I mean, you never know, do you? (And yes, I've read their statement that they don't make a profit on Nestle-Aland, but such statements are, at best, misleading when one understands the Byzantine inner workings of what constitute profits when it comes to non-proft profits.)
Christian publishing is a mess today. It used to be you could scan the bottom of the spines of books lined up on used bookstore shelves and watch for certain publishers names, knowing their orthodoxy. When you saw a good name at the bottom of the spine, you'd turn sideways to see if the title and author were something worth having. It doesn't work now, though; Zondervan publishes Wayne Grudem and Rob Bell with both men paid their very large royalties by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.
"Houston, we have a problem."
Concerning contracting with or buying books from this or that publisher, I think it's time we give ourselves to the foolish consistency which is the hobgoblin of faithful minds. For fifteen years now, I've been asking my friends who write to do two things: first, don't publish with Zondervan, IVP, and other houses that make their money off heresy while claiming to be orthodox Christians. No one should help the bottom line of Zondervan or IVP today, and I say this as the son of a man who at one time served as Publisher at IVP. Sadly, IVP has long ago turned its back on the Truth of God and it's time for all of us to move on and give ourselves to strengthening the publishers that remain faithful. If you have a book to publish, give it to Banner of Truth or Canon or Crossway or Tyndale House Publishers. Not everything they do is good, but they're not pimping for Rob Bell.
(And by the way, I have no problem with going with a completely secular publisher just as I have no problem with studying at a completely secular college or university. It's the half-Christians gone mad at Wheaton and Zondervan I fear.)
Second, negotiate that every book published is made available on the internet in e-text and free. I asked Vern Poythress and John Frame to do this and allow us to put their works up on the internet a number of years ago and that's where Frame-Poythress.org came from. Since then Andrew Dionne has volunteered his web design services and a lot of grunt work to run the web site. What a debt of gratitude we owe Andrew (whose work has all been without remuneration) as well as Vern and John for getting their publishers on board. Send these men e-mails thanking them for this service to the church—they need encouragement just like the rest of us.
The technology of digital reproduction has been a huge boon to the church as we see dead church fathers able to be distributed today across the world, almost without cost. Praise God!
But we have hanging fire in a number of areas and we should be thinking strategically about how to move on from the buying and selling of what used to be called the annual Christian Booksellers Association, but now is called the International Christian Retail Show. (The people of The Book are moving on from books: other merchandise now comprises a larger share of the profits than books, hence the name change.)
One suggestion is to return to the subscription-based model followed for centuries, but modernized in the form of a Christian kick-starter for solid writers who are both orthodox and have something to say. Instead of one or two rich men we'd have one hundred poor men who would each give—not invest—enough money to get good books finished and into print and e-reader format. This would be sort of a mass patronage model and no one would make any money once the book was printed, although maybe the printer would hold onto enough of the sales to be able to reprint the work without a second kick-starter campaign?
But I know I don't have the solutions, so think away, dear brothers. Both Dad and my father-in-law, Ken Taylor, started publishing companies, so there's no reason we can't ourselves change the way the Church approaches copyright, publication, and distribution.
And in that connection, look for some announcements from Clearnote Fellowship soon about a couple publications in the works we're convinced you will find helpful.
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Incidentally, if you want to know what inspired this post, read the good news of the Supreme Court's decision in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley and Sons in what is said to be the most important first sale case in a century. Librarians are very happy.