Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Copyright, fair use, and the church

What interesting technological times we live in, particularly as people of the church. 

Allow me to reminisce for a moment. It wasn't all that long ago that if you wanted a recording of a particular song, you needed to go to the record store and buy the entire LP that song was on. (Or cassette, or 8 track, or CD.) I remember being in high school (this was before discovering the wonder that was Columbia House and BMG CD clubs) and dropping $15 for a CD, when all I was really interested in was 2 or 3 songs off that CD. 

Thank goodness for itunes, eh?

And video. Oh, the things you can do with a laptop and some free software anymore. Get this: my wife and I were married almost 13 years ago. Already, videos of couples with pictures of them as kids and then later as a couple, all set to music were popular, but I didn't want to pay anyone to put one together. So here's what I did. We had decided that we wanted 3 songs in our video, so we got out a boombox that had both a cassette and CD, and recorded those 3 songs from CD's (one of which--Rod Stewart's Greatest Hits--we had to buy just so we could get the song Forever Young) on to a cassette. I then timed how long the 3 songs were strung together. Why? Because I had a video camera with a button where, if you pushed it, it would take a 7 second-long still shot. I divided the number of seconds the music lasted by 7, and that was the number of pictures we could use in the show. For a title slide, I actually printed out something like "Our Wedding Video" on a piece of paper so I could take a picture of it with the video camera. And then I spent about an hour and a half taking picture after picture. After getting through them all, I had the video I wanted on the camera, and the sound I wanted on the cassette, so I hooked them both up to inputs on our VCR. Sound input from the cassette player, video input from the camera. I hit "record" on the VCR, and then hit "play" simultaneously on the camera and cassette player. 

And I prayed. 

Considering the duct tape and baling wire method I used, I think it came out pretty darned good. But if I were doing that today, what took me HOURS upon HOURS to do in a very roundabout way could have been done very quickly with a couple of free programs and lots of digital files. And the product would be something infinitely superior to what I produced. 

We are living in a culture where we engage digital products all the time. And the amazing looking presentations and videos that we used to depend on professionals for can now be created fairly simply by just an average layperson with easily available (and often free) tools. For the church to engage and be relevant within that culture, we also need to be able to use those tools when and where appropriate for speaking the gospel. 

Along the line, of course we're going to encounter questions of copyright and fair use. A very common, and effective, use of technology is to take a song (sometimes explicitly Christian, sometimes not) and put images to it to help in reflecting on the meaning. It's a method that engages both our listening and our seeing, and when used well can really help introduce new ways of thinking or questioning about a given subject. Even if you're using the intellectual property of another (images or music), if you're not profiting off of their work and if it's legitimately used for teaching (or preaching), AND if in the process of combining those images and music together you're in effect creating a new product, what are the legal and ethical ramifications? Obviously the legal ramifications are important, but for church folk, the ethical ramifications ought to be even more important. No matter what the law may or may not say, what is most important is doing the right thing. We are only now in the middle of figuring out what the "right thing" is in so many situations that just didn't even exist 20 years ago, or sometimes even 10 years ago. 

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