Publishing Under Creative Commons: A Primer for Parishes and Dicoeses

Last week the Catholic Twittersphere erupted when both the Vatican and the USCCB demanded that blogger Brandon Vogt remove e-book versions of Pope Francis’ encyclical Lumen Fidei from his web site. Brandon had converted the encyclical into a variety of formats, including Kindle, iPad, and Nook, and was making them freely available so that people could access the pope’s writings on their device of choice.

My purpose here is not to defend either party; rather, I’d like to ask why the Church’s treasure of teachings, chant, liturgical texts, and other works are so tightly controlled when there are catechists, bloggers, and media producers who would gladly make use of them to further the Church’s mission of evangelization. That these resources remain unavailable to the Christian faithful in their apostolates constitutes a great disservice to the work of catechesis and evangelization. It’s hard not to get the impression that some in the Church are more concerned with asserting copyright than spreading the Good News.

Fortunately there is a solution that would both allow the Church to maintain copyright of its works while allowing the faithful to make use of them in the mission of evangelization: the Creative Commons license.

cc-logo-funWhat is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons (CC) is a standard for creating licenses allowing others to use your copyrighted works. In other words, you give permission for others to use your created works (be it text, images, sound, or video) under specific conditions set by you. As an example, I post everything on my web site under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license. That means that anyone may copy my blog posts or images that I create for my site and edit them for their own purposes, provided that they a) attribute me at the original creator and b) do not sell the resulting work or otherwise make money off it.

The four main conditions typically attached to CC licenses are

  • Attribution (the licensee must attribute the original creator)
  • NonCommercial (resulting works may not be sold)
  • NonDerivative (the original work may not be altered or edited)
  • Share-Alike (you can edit the work but must release your creation under the same CC license)

Creators can mix and match the conditions they put on works; CC does not require that all four be used.

It is important to note that a CC license does not negate or otherwise replace copyright. The original creator retains the copyright to their work. Rather, CC is designed to sit along side — and, in fact, relies on — traditional copyright law. It is merely meant to allow others access to the work under the conditions of the CC license.

Why Publish Under Creative Commons?

Publishing under a CC license allows creators to retain the copyright to their works while ensuring that the works may be used by others. In the case of Church documents, this would keep the copyright with the USCCB or Holy See while allowing the faithful to use the Church’s treasury of teachings in catechetical handouts, blog posts, mobile apps, online videos, study guides, and other media.

Utilizing the CC model recognizes that the information and resources produced by the Church are not useful if they cannot be easily shared. The internet and related digital tools have created an environment in which it is able — and indeed expected — that text, audio, and video will be readily accessible and available for editing and sharing. A whole generation of young Catholics, such as Brandon, is already experimenting with new media tools in evangelization efforts. The more the Church can support these efforts the more enthusiastic evangelists it will foster.

Indeed, the USCCB already does this (although not under the Creative Commons name) for many of the resources available on their web site. For instance, the 2013 Catechetical Sunday materials contain this disclaimer:

Copyright © 2013, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

This is essentially a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NonDerivatives license. It allows others to copy the material without alteration for noncommercial use. I’ve reproduced some of these articles in my office’s catechetical newsletter (which is itself released under a CC license) thanks to the permissions granted by the USCCB.

Switching from the generic permission disclaimer above to a CC license would be a powerful signal by the USCCB that it not only allows but actively encourages Catholics to copy and distribute the resources that the faithful, through their generosity to the Church, have funded.

How to Add a Creative Commons License

Once you’ve decided to publish a work under a CC license it’s simply a matter of using the Creative Commons web site’s handy tool ( to choose the appropriate license for the work. The tool includes the relevant text and images to add to the work to ensure that the license is clear; these can be copied and posted directly from the Creative Commons site.

For most Church-related works an Attribution-NonCommerical-NoDerivatives license will address the most common concerns. This license allows others to copy the work in its entirety and without edits, and redistribute it for free while given proper attribution. A better choice, however, would be an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. This license allows others to edit the work so long as they freely share the resulting work under the same license. This arrangement would have allowed Brandon to reformat Lumen Fidei into different electronic formats without violating the terms of the license.

In either case, as stated above, the creator retains the copyright to the work.

Parishes and dioceses should consider using a Creative Commons license when they create a variety of works, including

  • blog posts
  • catechetical aids
  • online videos
  • original music compositions
  • PowerPoint presentations
  • homilies
  • podcasts

Of course relevant local or diocesan policies should be followed. But it is my hope that more and more pastors, bishops, lay directors, composers, artists, and other Catholic media creators will recognize the value of using the Creative Commons to ensure that the faithful have access to the official teachings of the Church for use in evangelization and catechesis.

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Author:Jonathan F. Sullivan

Jonathan F. Sullivan is the director of catechetical services for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois. You can follow him on Twitter @sullijo; he also blogs on catechetical topics at
  • Joe Luedtke

    Jonathan, thanks for both sharing your stance on this issue as well as suggesting a step towards a solution. I appreciate the suggestion.

    I read through many of the comments on Brandon’s website this morning and while there’s clearly two sides to this issue, I thought one of the comments from Jeff A Stevens who quoted a Vatican newsletter summed up Brandon’s issue nicely. To repeat, the Vatican article’s quotes of one of the Holy Father’s radio addresses, “We are many times controllers of faith, instead of becoming facilitators of the faith of the people”.

    Like Brandon, I’ve hit this issue before in my work at Liturgical Publications. I firmly believe in intellectual property and copyrights, but I also believe the church needs to adapt to the always on, connected world that the Internet has brought us. The Internet is a powerful tool for good and we need to use it as such. Its a new world, a world of opportunity. The Internet brings us the chance to spread the Word, to share the passion, and teach the faith. Its time to give a chance for the voices to spread to Word, not a time to circle the wagons.

    Could the Holy Father’s words go viral? There’s a chance, but not if they’re locked behind copyrights and lawyers.

    • Jonathan F. Sullivan

      That’s my stance on the issue too, Joe — I support intellectual property and copyright law. I’d just like to see ways for the core texts of our faith to be available for people to use in catechesis and evangelization. I think we’re some time from making this a reality (someone said that Brandon is probably 10 years ahead of the Church on this), but I’m glad we can have the conversation.

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