Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Theology of Intellectual Property

©2010 Christopher Bart Barber, all rights reserved.

One of the more interesting cases of my lifetime (IMHO) is Association For Molecular Pathology et al v. United States Patent and Trademark Office et al. At issue in the case is whether the Myriad corporation can secure a patent covering the human genes BRCA1 and BRCA2.

At first glance, I have no real sympathy for Myriad. How can one patent not that which one has created but that which one has merely discovered? Didn't God make genes? Aren't we glad nobody patented gold? Water? Long walks in the park?

And yet, upon further reflection, how is Myriad's action different from that of a pastor who copyrights a sermon? Do you, as a pastor, pray asking God to guide you in your sermon preparation? Is it really entirely your creation? What about Christian music? I believe that it is not only illegal but is also immoral to make duplicates of a Mercy Me CD in order to avoid paying for their product. But why do I regard “I Can Only Imagine” differently than I regard the gene BRCA1?

It seems clear to me that I need to develop some sort of a biblical theology of intellectual property—some systematic approach to the topic that incorporates both a check against human hubris in exclusive credit for what God has done and an acknowledgement of the commandment not to steal. I haven't done that work for myself as of yet, but it is going onto my to-do list.


Bart Barber said...

My post presumes, of course, that I should not simply declare "Thou shalt not steal" to be an Old Covenant concept indicative of nefarious legalism.

Bob Cleveland said...

Maybe you could come at it from coveting another's work, or name the theft of intellectual property "ill-gotten gains".

R. L. Vaughn said...

This made me think of a song in our song book growing up. I can't think of the title right now (my thinker seems to slip into neutral much too often these days). Under the title were some words that included "Foote Brothers. Not copyrighted. Let no one do so..."

r. grannemann said...

The ACLU is suing the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office over this. Maybe you saw this (an interesting discussion of the issue):

Bart Barber said...


Certainly that would be a factor, but that's not the tricky part in my estimation. It's clear, in my own mind at least, that there is such a thing as intellectual property worthy of protection as private property and that there is such a thing as intellectual property that is public property.

The trick for me is to understand a good, clear system for differentiating the two.

As it pertains, for example, to sermons, when preaching them the preacher tends to say to his hearers, "Thus saith the Lord." When selling them, he tends to say, "Now this is not just what the Lord has said; this is content that I have created."

How can the authority derive from God while the credit and rights accrue to myself?

Bart Barber said...

Thanks, Bro. Grannemann. I was aware of the lawsuit, which is what brought the issue into my view at first.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Bart: "I haven't done that work for myself as of yet, but it is going onto my to-do list."

When you get it done, please let us know how your thoughts shook out. I think this is a much more important topic than the lack of comments hint.

The route I have taken thus far with the few books and booklets I have produced: I have put copyright notices on them, with the idea of trying to keep someone from changing them. Nothing I have done is intended as a money-making project and I doubt could ever be. I wouldn't mind if someone actually took the whole thing and printed it and made money off of it. In fact I might even be glad that they distributed it further. I mean, that's the whole idea isn't it, to get the truth out, to spread it far and wide?

What I have hoped the copyright notice would do is to keep from seeing something printed later over my name, but with changes that don't reflect what I wrote/believe. I'm probably the subject of Carly Simon's song "You're so vain" to even think something would do that over my name anyway. And if they did, I wouldn't do anything about it. Oh, I might try to spread the word that "I didn't say that". But I don't believe in suing, so that would be the end of it. So does the copyright notice really do someone like me any good? Probably not.

As to the source of the material, I credit God and biblical teachers in the preface to try to handle that angle. Nothing you hear from me will be original.

R. L. Vaughn said...

I found the song with the "non-copyright" notice. It was "When I See the blood", number 49 in Stamps-Baxter's Heavenly Highway Hymns.

"Foote Bros., not copyrighted. Let no one do so. May this song ever be free to be published for the glory of God."

Bart Barber said...

Awesome, Brother R.L.!

The more I contemplate the matter, the more I gravitate toward your viewpoint—one has the obligation to protect material from wanton modification and distortion by others, many of whom may not be friendly to the cause of the gospel. Furthermore, if I do not copyright it, someone else may do so, and then abuse the copyright.

Copyrights, however, ought not to be abused in order to claim as one's personal creation that which is the work of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, we pastors must beware becoming greedy for "filthy lucre" (I may preach from NASB, but I still quote the KJV memorized years ago).

R. L. Vaughn said...

I'm jealous because you state succinctly what I flail around for hours trying to get across! But I'm glad you can.

In a few days down the road I'm going to post on this subject and see if I can get any reader comments. I don't have that many readers, but they are mostly a different subset from those who read your blog.


Daniel y Tamra said...

This is resurrecting an old post, but I'm curious if you've made any progress on a biblical theology of intellectual property. I am a Christian and a practicing intellectual property attorney looking to understand the IP in light of biblical theology. Was wondering if anyone had gotten a start. Found your blog on the first page of a search for theology of intellectual property.

Bart Barber said...

On the Internet, stuff lives forever! Thanks for stopping by. No breakthrough in my thinking ever happened here.

I'm not sure where you live, but you might partner with a local theology professor and work something out!