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Copyright ethics

From the March 2012 issue of The Christian Science Journal

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Kevin Ness

Joy Cusack––staff

In today’s world in which the Internet has made publishing content easier than ever, a legal term we hear but may not fully understand is copyright. The Journal asked The Mother Church’s General Counsel, Kevin Ness, to shed some light on copyrights and how they relate to the work of The Mother Church and its branches.

Kevin, we often hear this word copyright. What does it mean?

In simple terms, a copyright is an exclusive ownership right given to the author of a creative work. Things such as a book, a song, a play, a photograph, or a work of art all have copyright. It helps me to think of it as a property right in something creative just as one would have a property right to real estate or a car one owned. Just as you would ask permission before borrowing your neighbor’s car, you would ask before using copyrighted work. 

Just as you would ask permission before borrowing your neighbor’s car, you would ask before using copyrighted work. 

For example, while you can play the song you bought on a CD or on an MP3 for personal use, you would need permission before making copies of the song, distributing it, posting it on the Internet, performing it in public, or incorporating it into a video. Although copyright rules evolve to keep pace with changing technologies, the purpose of copyright has largely stayed the same—to promote the arts by giving authors exclusive rights to their creative works for a limited time, which allows the authors to earn revenue, protect the integrity of those works, and help ensure proper attribution of them as the author. 

Is it true that Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures is no longer under copyright? 

That is true. Generally under United States law, items first published before 1923 are in the “public domain,” which means that Mrs. Eddy’s original published writings in English are no longer under copyright. In the case of Science and Health, the copyright was extended beyond its normal duration by special legislation in 1971, but this legislation was later reversed by a court decision. However, most non-English translations of Science and Health and Mrs. Eddy’s other published writings still remain under copyright.

You help manage the copyrights for The Mother Church. What does that entail?

There are many nuances in the copyright law, so the Office of the General Counsel helps the departments of The Mother Church know when and how to give permission on its copyrighted content and also when and how to get permission to use content from outside sources. As a publisher of books, magazines, a newspaper, and several websites, the Church and The Christian Science Publishing Society (which I’ll refer to together as “The Mother Church” or “Church”) own copyrights to most of the content that goes into these publications—for example, articles in the periodicals, the weekly Bible Lesson citations, and notes and letters from Mary Baker Eddy housed in The Mary Baker Eddy Library. 

When an individual or an organization, such as a church member or a publisher, wants to use something the Church owns for more than just a private use, he or she can contact us at to check copyright ownership and request permission. Sometimes we grant permission, but sometimes there are business reasons not to, such as when an outside publisher wants to publish something that conflicts or competes with something the Church publishes. And occasionally we have to ask someone to stop publishing Church materials without permission. We also want to respect the copyrights of others, so when needed we seek permission to use outside materials, such as photos in the periodicals.

Why is it important for the Church to enforce copyrights instead of allowing its books, articles, and archival materials to be freely published by others? How does that fit with the goal of sharing Christian Science as widely as possible? 

Those are important questions, and ones that the Church thinks deeply about. While there are legal and business reasons for the Church to be conscious of the copyrights it owns, such as a nonprofit organization’s legal duty to protect its assets, our primary motivation is a stand for divine Principle, and we look to Mary Baker Eddy’s example in how she treated copyrights.

From several comments Mrs. Eddy makes in her writings, copyrights were important to her. Although she says in her autobiography Retrospection and Introspection, “Christian Science is not copyrighted,” she consistently copyrighted her writings about Christian Science beginning with The Science of Man in 1870 and later Science and Health and other writings (see Retrospection and Introspection, pp. 76; 35). She even filed a lawsuit to enforce her copyright (see p. 39)! 

For her, though, it was more than just a strict following of human law. She understood the importance of acting from Principle and Truth in all instances. In her article “Advice to Students” she explains rather pointedly that when individuals copied her works without permission, it was theft, but also that the illegal copying “is an unseen form of injustice,” that it “breaks the Golden Rule,” and that “all error tends to harden the heart, blind the eyes, stop the ears of understanding, and inflate self” (Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896, p. 301). This also reminds me of her statement in Science and Health: “Honesty is spiritual power. Dishonesty is human weakness, which forfeits divine help” (p. 453).

Another concern that copyright helped Mrs. Eddy address was preventing others from taking her ideas and publishing them as their own. For instance, she writes that when her early manuscripts on Christian Science were distributed unsparingly, “the evil-minded would insinuate [the manuscripts] did not originate with me” (Retrospection and Introspection, p. 36). This concern wasn’t an ego trip, but an important recognition of her role as the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, which cannot be separated from her writings. Furthermore, she writes “Life and its ideals are inseparable, and one’s writings on ethics, and demonstration of Truth, are not, cannot be, understood or taught by those who persistently misunderstand or misrepresent the author” (Retrospection and Introspection, p. 75).

One might wonder or even be puzzled about whether The Mother Church’s enforcement of its copyrights is an effort to control publications about Christian Science or to enforce a policy of “authorized literature.” Actually, the Church’s motive is always to keep copyright in the same perspective that Mrs. Eddy did—to find that right balance of freely sharing works on Christian Science, while still valuing copyright and the protections it brings. The Church also considers the proper monetary valuing of the books, periodicals, and other study materials the Church publishes, which is consistent with Mrs. Eddy’s own practice of selling her books and charging a fee for her teaching. However, the Church is always listening to understand where this right balance is, so if anyone has ideas to share, we want to hear them.

What about Christian Science materials published other than by the Church? Are they legal? Should Christian Scientists avoid them?

It’s one’s own prayerful decision as to what to buy or read. From a copyright perspective, most outside publishers who publish Christian Science materials are following the law and obtaining necessary permissions, but the Church has been in touch with a few to point out infringements. It’s interesting that Mrs. Eddy doesn’t preclude books other than her own, as she indicates in Science and Health that “a few books” based on Science and Health are useful (see p. x), and there are certainly worthwhile and insightful publications on Christian Science published outside of The Mother Church. However, it’s also worth considering the publishing role Mrs. Eddy established for the Church and a few important protections the Church Manual provides. For example:

  • Article VIII, Section 11 notes: “A member of this Church shall neither, buy, sell, nor circulate Christian Science literature which is not correct in its statement of the divine Principle and rules and the demonstration of Christian Science.” This provision also requires one to consider “the spirit in which the writer has written his literature” in determining whether it is in line with Christian Science, which is particularly relevant when considering materials published by those who are openly against The Mother Church or have another agenda or purpose.
  • Similarly, Article XXV, Section 5’s requirement that employees involved with the publishing of Mrs. Eddy’s books or periodicals be approved as “suitable” shows that the spirit and thought surrounding publications is important.
  • Article VIII, Section 14 requires the Church periodicals to be “ably edited,” whereas materials published outside of the Church may not necessarily receive the same level of editing or have the benefit of a team of editors to review for metaphysical and editorial accuracy as Mrs. Eddy envisioned.

Some branches share their church services online or through a telephone conference. Do they need to concern themselves with copyright?

They definitely do! Although there is a specific exception in the US copyright law that allows live performance of music or other copyrighted works in a religious service without permission, it does not cover broadcasts, recordings, podcasts, Web transmissions, etc. If a branch is using technology to broadcast and share services beyond the live audience in the auditorium or Sunday School, it may need to seek permission from third parties or The Mother Church before using hymns, solos, and other music, the Bible Lesson, and any other copyrighted elements of the services. 

Audio teleconferencing, including audio Skype, will not require copyright licenses so it may be the best method to use. But if a branch is using other forms of transmission, it should visit for more information on how to obtain necessary copyright permissions.

Do you have any thoughts for those who may be considering whether or not to publish something on Christian Science either in print, online, or in other media?

The Mother Church is so grateful for all who love Christian Science enough to want to live it and share it as widely as possible. 

Mrs. Eddy gave us a brilliant design of a Church and Publishing Society. Today, Web technology has made it more common for individuals, branches, and Christian Science related organizations to publish their own Christian Science content. This may be a good time for us all to pause and prayerfully consider whether these efforts support the publishing activities Mrs. Eddy established, or are they unwittingly turning into mini publishing societies. It is of course possible to maintain a website or other publication that meets local and organizational needs while still supporting and strengthening the Publishing Society Mrs. Eddy established and expected to be the only publishing arm of the Church.

In considering the role of The Mother Church and others in publishing, this passage from Science and Health can be helpful: “Home is the dearest spot on earth, and it should be the centre, though not the boundary, of the affections” (p. 58). If we think of The Mother Church and its offerings as our “home base” for sharing Christian Science, every member can solidly support Mother Church publishing activities through prayer and participation—such as subscribing and writing for the periodicals (online and in print)—while at the same time utilizing appropriate Web opportunities to share the Science of Christ in individual areas of Christian Science activity.

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