Thieves in the Temple: Intellectual Property, Use of Media, and the Law (Not Yet) Written on Our Hearts

[1] Today’s reading from Jeremiah casts a lovely and hopeful vision for a future when God’s law is “written on the hearts” of the people, and when friendship with God is so obvious that no one needs any convincing. Imagine the profound reformation required for us humans to reach that point! Although we trust that indeed “the day is surely coming,” it is only too clear that we are not there yet. In fact, when I consider what is or is not written on our own hearts, I see evidence that we twenty-first century technology-infused Lutherans can sometimes have blank slates of ignorance beating in our chests.

Thieves in the Temple: Intellectual Property, Use of Media, and the Law (Not Yet) Written on Our Hearts by Jonathan Rundman

[2] Since graduating from high school two decades ago, I have spent my life as a traveling Lutheran musician, resource person, and song leader. For those of us who make our living in the performing arts, the early 1990s seem Paleolithic. Back then our supporters gladly purchased physical CDs (and cassette tapes!) after concerts, and received band updates via USPS and a dot-matrix printer. Now all showbiz has gone virtual in the biggest media transformation since Mr. Gutenberg helped set the stage for that first Reformation Day.

Text: Jeremiah 31:31–34
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
[3] Overwhelmingly, I am thrilled with the current state of technology. If not for websites, email, and digital recording software, my daily work would be made nearly impossible. However, these huge advances have also made our choices as media consumers much more complex, and have resulted in our church pews being populated by (mostly unaware) pirates. Aarrgh.

[4] The first time I recall being confronted with the church-goer’s lack of concern for intellectual property rights was sometime around the year 2000, when I was performing at a Lutheran youth gathering. I was standing by my display table, visiting with folks and selling my CDs, when a teenaged girl came up to me with some cash. She smiled, looked me straight in the eyes, and confidently said, “We’ve pooled our money, so I’ll take one of each CD, and then my youth group will just burn copies for each other!” I was shocked at what she so plainly and happily confessed, but in my surprise all I could do was sell her the three discs knowing that I should have been paid for thirty.

[5] In the past decade I had other similar exchanges that I always brushed aside thinking, “This is a problem for youth who grew up with the internet, file sharing, etc.” Well, yes it is, but other age groups are not immune. Just this past spring I was the music leader at a synod assembly when a cheerful 60-something church organist came up to me and said the same thing: “I’ll buy this one, and my friend from the neighboring congregation will buy the other one, and then we’ll copy them for each other.”

[6] Since CDs are so easy to copy and MP3s are so easy to swap, we musicians feel a particularly acute pain due to this kind of Information Age thievery. Needless to say, many other creative individuals and companies are wounded, too, by the carelessness of Christian consumers. Church folks are downloading bootleg video, copying printed material, passing around software installation discs, and plagiarizing term papers from coast to coast and across the generations. My wife is an editor at Augsburg Fortress, the publishing house of the ELCA…you can imagine some of our dinner conversations.

[7] So, how do those of us who stand up front and use the microphone at church events or worship services address these issues? Some of the more extreme cases of “Thou Shalt Not Steal” seem to be already written on our hearts. No pastor needs to preach “God does not want you to put on a ski mask and grab a shotgun and rob a bank.” Somehow, people have internalized the right and wrong thing to do in such a television-police-drama scenario. But as a media user (not only a media creator) I admit that the issues surrounding a stolen idea are much more murky than the ethical quandaries surrounding a stolen car. Can I copy the MP3s for one of my favorite albums if I already own the album on vinyl? Can I install computer software without paying if I got the hardware device as a gift? Can I show a clip of a movie as a sermon illustration? Can I photocopy some choral sheet music if a new guy shows up to sing baritone at choir rehearsal?

[8] Perhaps the Lutheran understanding of vocation might be a helpful angle. We believe that God gives everyone different gifts and skills and passions, and in following those paths we can live out a life of service. Whether you are a bus driver, computer programmer, soldier, or bishop, your daily work becomes a beautiful and holy calling. Now, it is pretty easy to see church workers, teachers, and doctors in this light, and it is clear to us that we want to honor their work. Sometimes, though, we need a reminder that musicians, camera operators, editors, electricians, and factory workers are personally impacted when we drag 300 songs over from our friend’s hard drive or when we buy a bootlegged DVD on the street corner.

[9] For those pastors and leaders who serve an old-school, traditional congregation, maybe the parishioners would be receptive to a little shout-out to our heritage this Reformation Day. As Lutherans, we have a proud history of celebrating music and the arts, the written word, and the maximization of new technology to get the good news of God’s grace into the hands and hearts of everyone. Certainly we should continue to be known for our respect for the creative arts, the protection of intellectual property, our academic rigor, and our fearless and innovative use of media to speak the language of the people.

[10] As I explored this topic and prepared to write this essay, I found that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has already created a statement regarding copyright and intellectual property issues. The information is found within the “Legal Issues for Congregations” area of the ELCA’s Web site.

Here, a helpful list of educational, legal, and government resources is provided. The site also offers clear instructions for individuals and congregations about how to request permission to use copyright protected media. Augsburg Fortress Publishers also provides a useful Web page, “Copyrights & Permissions” with additional assistance and a thorough FAQ.

[11] This week’s reading from Jeremiah reminds us that God is in the business of making and upholding covenants. It is encouraging to me to see how our own church body is publicly striving to maintain that ideal, fulfilling the legal obligations we have as users of music, images, words, and ideas.

[12] Occasionally I see evidence of Lutherans wrestling with these concerns and doing the right thing. Edina Community Lutheran Church, where I am a member, invited me and another professional songwriter to attend a panel discussion in front of about 30 confirmation students. Most of the kids had not been previously made aware of the problems of music piracy, and they began to see the ramifications of their behavior as consumers. I was pleased to see that my pastors had thought to raise the issue.

[13] Earlier this summer I received an email from a thirty-something man named Jim who had been following my music career for many years. He wrote (quoted by permission):

Over the 4th of July weekend I was driving my mother-in-law’s car. She had a copy of your Protestant Rock Ethic album in the CD player and I started to listen to it. I resisted the urge to stick the discs in my computer to rip them and instead told myself I would purchase my own copy.

Ultimately, the reason for ordering these albums was not to just hear your music, but to support you. I don’t usually stop and think how I can best support an artist when purchasing their music, but since I know you and how hard you have worked at making music your career, it was important to me that I support that by helping you make as much profit as possible on my album purchases.

[14] When Jim stumbled across a recording of an artist that he knew personally, his perspective on the value of the music was changed. Jim experienced a mini-media Reformation, and he will likely reflect on this event when he consumes music in the future. As we read God’s promise in Jeremiah to “remember [our] sin no more,” we get to joyfully respond by allowing God’s law to impress upon our hearts like Gutenberg’s movable type. Assured of our status as “God’s people” we can begin to reform our old ways of behaving, in our use of media, and in all facets of life.

Jonathan Rundman

Jonathan Rundman is a Midwest-based songwriter, performer, and recording artist. His critically acclaimed songs have been highlighted in publications such as Billboard, Paste Magazine, The New York Times, The Christian Century, and The Lutheran, and have received radio airplay from coast to coast and in Europe.