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The Problem with Creative Commons ShareAlike

May 22, 2023 — Conley Owens

For those interested in disseminating ministry materials at no cost, Creative Commons licenses have provided a standard alternative to full copyright. Any license in this suite of licenses ensures that material may be distributed to anyone without royalties. In particular, the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (CC BY-SA) has been a favorite among many. Unlike many other Creative Commons licenses, which require explicit permission from the copyright holder to make derivatives or use them in potentially commercial settings, works under CC BY-SA may be used without friction between the copyright holder and the user of the copyrighted work.

The two features of CC BY-SA are the Attribution feature and the ShareAlike feature. The Attribution feature requires that any redistribution of the work or any derivative must include credit to the copyright holder. The ShareAlike feature requires that any derivative work must be licensed under the same license. This license propagation is often known as “copyleft” and prevents a creative work from being repackaged or distributed under more restrictive terms.

In the context of ministry, the ShareAlike feature has a natural appeal. For one who cares about the no-cost distribution of ministry materials, CC BY-SA ensures that derivative ministry materials are also distributed at no cost. One who writes a book and offers it gratis would certainly be disappointed to see another translate the book only to sell it.

Yet, there are several reasons why applying this feature is problematic.

1. Limited License Interoperability: Copyleft licenses only make sense in a world where alternative licenses are limited and enjoy non-competing market share.[1] For example, one who wants to combine several Bible references, available under CC BY-SA as well as the GNU Free Documentation License will find the problem intractable.[2]

In recent years, there has been cooperation from the makers of copyleft licenses to add interoperability between their licenses, but this is simply not the case across the board. Moreover, there is no guarantee that it will continue to be the case as new licenses are introduced into the ecosystem.

A key takeaway is that content creators cannot anticipate how their works may be used by others, and copyleft licensing restrictions often prevent legitimate use cases.

2. Burdensome Impositions: While we might describe something given at no financial cost as “free,” if it is given apart from the liberty to use that thing to the fullest potential, is it truly free? To offer material with strings attached is a limited generosity that does not match the biblical ethic.

The biblical ethic teaches that we should offer gospel ministry without imposing any sort of burden.

And when I was present with you and was in need, I was not a burden on any man, for the brothers, when they came from Macedonia, supplied my need. And in everything I kept myself from being burdensome to you, and so I will remain.

2 Cor 11:9

Many are quick to read this passage as Paul simply claiming that he did not take money from the Corinthians. It is true that he took money from the Macedonians and not the Corinthians. However, if we interpret “burden” as referring simply to money, that would suggest that Paul did burden the Macedonians, something he asserts he would never do to any of his churches (2 Cor 12:14).[3] Furthermore, one might interpret “burden” as referring to financial hardship, but the Corinthians were well-off compared to the Macedonians.[4]

Rather, burden should be recognized as the imposition of obligation. One who offers the gospel freely and receives support in his mission imposes no burden, but one who offers the gospel with strings attached imposes a burden even if he receives no financial compensation.

3. Illegitimate Claims of Ownership: While a contentious topic, do ministries even have the right to claim such restrictions on derivative works? Certainly, they do by the copyright laws of most modern jurisdictions, but this has not always been the case. Copyright law and the notion of intellectual property is a relatively recent invention,[5] and the legitimacy of such restrictions are more assumptions than they are proven fact. They stand on pragmatism rather than principle. Justice and property should be biblically defined, yet most approach this question on the basis of pragmatic concerns.

Property is a real thing; thus, God gave man dominion over the creatures (Gen 1:26) and instituted the eighth commandment (Exo 20:15). But nowhere are ideas called property. Nowhere is anything which cannot be lost called property. Indeed, ideas cannot be lost and are not in any biblical sense property. If this assessment is correct, then no one has the right to assert that a derivative work must conform to any copyleft licensing restrictions.

4. Enforcement Difficulties: It’s also worth noting that many barriers stand in the way of enforcing ShareAlike restrictions. Typically, individuals and organizations simply rely on copyright producing a chilling factor on the creation of derivative works. They possess neither the financial means nor willpower to actually enforce such restrictions in most circumstances.

Moreover, the Bible would forbid such enforcement in the context of ministry use. As Paul forbade weaponizing the legal system against other Christians (1 Cor 6:1-8), so we should resolve such disputes within the church and rather be defrauded when we cannot. If we cannot agree that it is right for things like translated works to be distributed more freely than the original author intended, should the copyright holder really pursue their brother in court? Even in ecclesiastical courts, such blatant restrictions on gospel ministry work against the concerns of 1 Corinthians 6, to demonstrate the unity of the body of Christ.

5. Confusing Terms: Unfortunately, copyright is an area fraught with complications. As such, a mechanism like copyleft can often add to the confusion. For example, most people feel free to quote or incorporate other fully copyrighted works into their own, either with an implicit or explicit understanding of fair use doctrine. However, CC BY-SA often leads people to believe that they cannot make use of such works in this way. By making explicit statements that a derivative work must be licensed under the same terms, many believe that such a use of a quotation would require a relicensing of the containing work.

One may object that this is a broken understanding of how the license works, but it makes no difference how illegitimate these concerns may be. Such confusion around the ShareAlike mechanism often exists and produces an unintended chilling effect.

While the ShareAlike feature of Creative Commons licenses seems to promote free access and sharing of ministry materials, it prohibits truly free access. Ministries should abandon this feature of the Creative Commons license as well as any other restriction. Instead, they should use alternatives like Creative Commons Zero, which dedicates the work into the public domain. It is only through waiving every claim to works of ministry that the gospel may be freely given as it was freely received.

  1. While somewhat dated, this article by David Wiley captures some of the concerns well. ↩︎

  2. Apart from having the political sway to get license authors to declare compatibility, as was the case with the Wikimedia Foundation in 2009. ↩︎

  3. On its face, 2 Cor­inth­ians 12:13 may suggest otherwise (“For what is there in which you were made inferior to the rest of the churches, except that I myself was not a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong.”). But the irony present in the verse more likely only indicates that his non-burdensome actions toward oth­er church­es would count as burdens if applied to the Cor­inth­ians. Besides, it would be difficult to justify the apostle’s behavior if he actually did treat his congregations with partiality (cf. James 2:1). ↩︎

  4. Some in Corinth were presumably of noble birth (1 Cor 1:26) and well off (1 Cor 11:21). On the other hand, the Macedonians gave “beyond their means” (2 Cor 8:4) and Paul goes as far as to describe it as “robbery” to take money from them (2 Cor 11:8). ↩︎

  5. The first copyright law was introduced in 1710. ↩︎

Conley Owens

Author of The Dorean Principle MDiv

Conley is a software engineer, a pastor at Silicon Valley Reformed Baptist Church, and a father of eight kids. He is also the author of The Dorean Principle: A Biblical Response to the Commercialization of Christianity.

I began exploring issues with licensing back in college, and over time I witnessed the substantial friction it created in ministry. I was convicted regarding the harm commercial practices cause the church, but for a long time, I was never sure if the Bible had much to say directly about the matter. It turns out it does!