Open Source Songs

An interesting discussion has been occurring over at Simone’s blog after a Sola Panel post raised her song writing hackles. It all started from a discussion about amending lyrics to make them more theologically palatable.

In my mind it’s a discussion on the “open source” nature of ministry material masquerading as a copyright debate. There’s a useful document on churches and copyright here (PDF).

I sympathise with Simone’s artistic position – as a graduate of the Creative Industries faculty at QUT I can do little else. But I don’t think our understanding of things created as ministry tools should be shaped by our understanding of “secular copyright”.

Bach famously signed off his compositions with a Latin acronym SDG (the phrase Sola Deo Gloria – meaning to the glory of God alone). His understanding was that his creative works belonged to God. At least that’s my understanding of his understanding.

If, as Simone argues, words (and music) belong to the songwriter alone – then there are some broad ethical considerations to make. Her argument opens up, in my mind, an ethical can of worms when it comes to reappropriating and retuning old hymns. It’s legal – because they are “public domain” but just because it’s legal doesn’t make it ethically right. If a song is a possession then it’s odd to argue that its intangible nature makes it somehow different from a material thing. A dead person’s belongings remain with their estate in perpetuity – and yet we’re happy to tinker with their no doubt prized works. 

My thinking – and indeed my “preference” – is for a “creative commons” approach to ministry. There are now almost 30 comments on the thread on Simone’s blog – and the majority are from me. It’s an interesting (in my mind) issue to think through. And I’m glad it has been raised.

Even going down the “Copyright” path opens up avenues where I’d suggest congregations should be free to change things. If ministry is essentially working as God’s employees (1 Corinthians 3:9) then our employer owns the copyright for works we produce – so his word should change the content. If a song is theologically wrong, but can be easily redeemed – then I say redeem it. 

I don’t know why artistic endeavours are placed on some pedestal over and above exercising other God given gifts. I sympathise. I consider myself a “creative” person. But I don’t see why writing words that glorify God in song is different to writing a recipe that glorifies God through hospitality – and you don’t see chefs jumping up and down when someone tinkers with their ingredients.

I used an argument based on writing media releases too – in the comments – which I quite liked. So I’ll reproduce it.

“I write Media Releases for a living. I agonise over every word because they’re often of a political nature or important to get right. It’s important that they communicate a truth. Just as it’s important that your songs communicate a truth about God.
I get angry if they’re misconstrued and used out of context.
But if they’re being used appropriately to communicate my organisation’s point but my words are not used verbatim (except the bits in direct quotes) then I rejoice. Because they have achieved their purpose.”

If I wrote a song – and learned people were changing it in a way I did not approve of – I’d defend my original position but I don’t think I’d die in a ditch over it.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.