Is copyright law binding to the Christian? While copyright laws may vary from one country to another, wherever such a law is drafted Christians are bound to obey it. Illegal copying is stealing from others. In addition, Christians are obliged by scripture to obey government laws; this includes copyright laws.

Source: Faith in Focus, 2010. 4 pages.

Christianity and Copyright in New Zealand

When thinking of copying music, mov­ies, computer software, television pro­grammes or other copyrighted material, do not let your conscience be your guide. Go by the strict letter of your country’s secular law. I say this because the rights of copyright holders do not come from any universal or natural law, still less di­rectly from the Bible or other divine law, but are pure creatures of parliamentary statutes, which allow a certain amount of copying, to which copyright holders have consented or are deemed by secular law to have consented.

Copyright in music, computer soft­ware, etc does not proceed from the nature of human beings or inherent logic as to the rights of an author, songwriter or computer programmer. If it did, the laws of all countries would confer identical rights and would allow the same proportion of copying without permission. Yet, even within the coun­tries of the English-speaking world, all of which derive their laws ultimately from England, there is a maze of conflicting rules. What may be reproduced and under what conditions greatly varies: it appears that “time-shifting” (recording a television broadcast for watching later at the copyist’s convenience) has long been allowed in New Zealand, while “format-shifting” (e.g. copying a sound recording to an iPod for private use) was illegal until recently but is now permitted. The former exception applies to copying from radio or television while the latter is restricted to music.

Even the length of time a copyright is in force varies from country to country. It is ninety-five years in the USA, seventy in Australia, but only fifty in Canada and New Zealand for literary works. Even within New Zealand different genres of material enjoy different lengths of protection. In addition, national parlia­ments amend their copyright legislation frequently, conferring or extending some rights and reducing others.

Even the criteria as to what entitles a composer, author or other creator to copyright his/her product differ from nation to nation. The law of the New Zealand grants copyright on the basis of the amount of work that went into creating a new product of the mind in tangible form, but US law stresses originality and creativity.

What may be copied without permis­sion, called “fair use” in the USA and “fair dealing” in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Britain, varies according to national criteria. Thus, you cannot rely for permitted copying in your own country what was legally copied in an­other. The New Zealand Copyright Act allows limited exceptions for research, universities, private study, institutes for the deaf and the blind, and schools for teaching a language. There is no spe­cific or blanket exception for churches or other non-profit organisations. Like many countries, Kiwi law provides a mechanism whereby a person can copy another’s work by paying a fee set by the government whether the copyright holder has consented or not.

Given the inconsistencies as to excep­tions and kinds and extents of rights and the ease with which copies can be made, should a Christian even consider copyright or copyright laws when they wish to copy music or a computer programme? Why cannot a Kiwi make copies for his friends as well as himself, or even sell them to strangers? The answer is twofold: doing so is harmful to society and the economy (which is why secular law prohibits it) and it is contrary to the law which protects all citizens and their property, both copyists and copyright holders.

First, illegal copying or infringement of copyright confers an unmerited wind­fall on infringers at the expense of the author, composer, lyric-writer, publishing house, record company and other people whose labour and monetary investment make the product possible. If they went substantially unrewarded for their efforts or could not recoup their expenses, there would be little incentive to create new productions besides vanity or a desire to present one’s point of view. Still less would they make them available to the public.

Second, Christians are bound in con­science to obey their governments in all things; the only exception is when it commands them to violate their religion, and then only to the extent that the governmental command infringes on it. The proof texts are Romans 13:1-5, Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 2:13f and 1 Peter 2:17.

The early church fathers🔗

Second-century Christians, who enjoyed the benefit of fresh memories of the apostles and other early disciples and of oral interpretations of what they had written, shared the same attitude toward civil authorities as do Reformed churches today. Justin, a martyr for the faith at government hands around AD 165, told the Roman emperors that: “to God alone we render worship, but in other things we gladly serve you, acknowledging you as kings and rulers of men” (1 Apology 17). Pastor of Antioch in Syria in the third quarter of the second century, Theophilus said that

concerning subjection to authori­ties and powers, and prayer for them, the divine word gives us instructions, in order that ‘we may lead a quiet and peaceable life.’ And it teaches us to render all things to all, ‘honour to whom honour, fear to whom fear, trib­ute to whom tribute; to owe no many anything but to love all.’To Autolycus 3.14

A former lawyer and later a minister in what is now Tunisia, the church father Tertullian in exegeting Matthew 22.17-21 wrote this about Christians:

as to what relates to the honours due to kings or emperors, we have a prescript sufficient, that it behoves us to be in all obedience, according to the apostle’s precept, “subject to magistrates, and princes and powers;” but within the limits of discipline, so long as we keep ourselves separate from idolatry. On Idolatry 15

He cited as examples the three He­brews who refused to worship the idol in Daniel 3, but who were “in other respects obedient toward King Neb­uchadnezzar,” and Daniel himself who refused to obey King Darius’s law against prayer (Daniel 6) although “in all other points submissive to Darius, remained in his duty so long as it was free from danger to his religion.”

The view of the Confessions🔗

This concept is summarised in concise, systematic order by bringing together the substance of biblical passages in the subordinate standards of the Reformed churches. According to the Belgic Con­fession 36, “it is the bounden duty of every one, of whatever state, quality or condition he may be, to subject himself to the magistrates; to pay tribute, to show due honor and respect to them, and to obey them in all things which are not repugnant to the word of God”, while Lord’s Day 39 of the Heidelberg Catechism extends a Christian’s duties towards his/her parents under the Fifth Commandment “to all in authority over me (and) to submit myself with due obedience ... and also bear patiently with their weaknesses and shortcomings”. Neither Scripture nor the Three Forms of Unity make exceptions for copyright statutes. In fact, Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 42 Answer 110 is very ap­plicable to copyright and unauthorised copying: “God forbids not only such theft and robbery as are punished by the magistrate, but He also brands as theft all wicked tricks and devices whereby we aim to appropriate our neighbor’s goods, whether by force or with show of right.”

In the countries I studied (Canada, New Zealand, Australia, United Kingdom and USA), in all but Australia the amount of what is a reasonable portion that may be copied is phrased in vague, inexact criteria such as the purpose, character and nature of the copied work, the possibility of obtaining a non-infringing copy at an ordinary commercial price, the effect of the copying on the market for legitimate copies, and the proportion and substantiality copied. Often the ex­tent of permitted copying is found not in statutes (which can be easily accessed from the internet) but in court decisions (which are not, and are subject to being overruled).

Does our conscience require more of us?🔗

But should not the Christian go the extra mile and refrain from copying even what their national law permits, in accordance with what such Christian considers the “spirit” of the legislation? Not as regards copyright. Copyright protection does not exist apart from statute, which also cre­ates the “fair dealing” and other excep­tions. There was no copyright statute at all, even in England, until after the Three Forms of Unity and Westminster stand­ards were already adopted. Protection and exceptions exist only as Parliament allows after hearing both creators and producers (present and future copy­right holders) and consumers (potential copiers). National governments strike the balance they consider to best provide incentives for authors, composers and computer programmers and other po­tential producers to create new works while at the same time enabling the public/consumers access to and freedom to utilise these products and to employ them in creating new works of their own. Every decade, or sometimes every year, national legislatures adjust their country’s copyright laws or are parties to renego­tiating international copyright treaties. Because technology is always progressing, with new forms of items that can be copied and new ways of copying existing items reaching the market, legislatures must again strike a new balance between producers and consumers on the basis of the changed situation. As new technol­ogy comes along, the balance becomes uneven and Parliament hears again from the parties and strikes a new balance, with new protections and exceptions. The Australian federal government has a Copyright Law Review Committee just for this purpose. The strengths of the competing groups and their (temporary) influence on government are different from country to country, which is why the law of New Zealand differs from that of Australia. Producers give up some rights in their intellectual creations in return for new protections over their remaining ones, while potential copyists allow some restrictions on copying in exchange for others, with Parliament arbitrating differ­ences in desires or legitimate interests.

Do not be bothered by pangs of con­science if you are copying something you think your nation’s law should protect but does not in fact protect, or allows exceptions. You are not robbing the composer, lyric-writer, author, etc when you abide by the letter of your country’s copyright law. They have already given up the relevant right, often voluntarily, in return for considerations such as pro­tection of works they create using new technology. They have consented to your copying. With proper consent, a person may copy anything. If they consider such copying to be unfair, they can try to persuade the government when it is next amending the Copyright Act. Until then, both parties are bound by their bargain. Copiers have already paid the price for legal copying.

Please do not regard the present arti­cle as a lawyer’s professional advice or as a definitive statement of the law. There are frequent changes to the rules as to what can be copied and what cannot. For instance, there was a major legisla­tive change in New Zealand between the date I began to research this article and the date I revised it. The rules may well change again between the time I wrote the present version and the time when Faith in Focus publishes it. To be sure as to what you can copy, consult a solicitor. At second best, but no defence in a copyright infringement lawsuit, are public legal information services, such as the Copyright Council of New Zealand website at See also the Ministry of Economic Develop­ment website at For a rough idea whether your contemplated copying abides by the law, go to www., find “copyright” and find the statute and amendments.

Remember, however, that just be­cause you can make an argument from looking at New Zealand’s Copyright Act that particular copying is permitted does not mean that it really is. All statutes can be authoritatively interpreted only by Her Majesty’s judges. Nor are court decisions relating to copying one genre (e.g. prose) necessarily applicable to another (e.g. poetry). Nor can anyone draw analogies from a court decision or other practice in one area of the law to another area, still less from the law of one country to another. For this article, I have consulted only statutes, not the all-important judicial decisions.

Law applies to all🔗

Due submission to the laws of one’s country applies to both copyright holders and consumers who wish to copy (part of) their works. Just as users are not to appropriate the holder’s rights by electronic and other tricks and devices, so also the Reformed faith forbids copyright owners to allege infringement and de­mand payment under show of right by alleging that a use or copying infringes their copyrights when the relevant law provides otherwise.

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.