It’s Okay to Copy, Right?

Ever wonder what artists talk about when they get together?  Fishermen talk about “the one that got away.” Truck drivers talk about bad wrecks and near misses. Food service people talk about rude customers.  But what do artists, especially those musicians and actors who serve the church… what do they talk about?

The name of this blog is Backstage Blog… so today I thought I would give you some real backstage chatter. I recently received this true story from a fellow artist.  I have my own similar stories but rarely have I seen so many bad cliches come together in one narrative. So read and enjoy… or cringe… as the case may be!

When I was touring my one-man material back in the 90s (I know, so long ago, right?), I would send churches a checklist of things I needed. Top of the list: I need a place where I could change and please please have the platform area  be cleared of furniture before I got there. In my heyday of 2 or 3 performances a week, it got very tiring to move furniture, get changed, do the play, then move it all back. But over the years, my guess is about 70% of the churches didn’t do this for me. I’d walk into the sanctuary and the front of the church still looked like Sunday morning. Although a janitor was usually there to “help me” clear it off.

This became the beginning of true back pain.

One place, I remember it was in a little town in CA, I didn’t have anyone there to help at all. I wandered in Sunday afternoon, calling for help. Finally, an older gentleman came out and said he couldn’t help me, his back was bad and besides, I was a young whipper-snapper and couldn’t I just move those 6 heavy solid cherry-wood pews off the platform, along with the five huge potted plants, and the pulpit the size of a ship prow. I had just driven 6 hours, in the middle of summer, without stopping to go to the bathroom. So I made a stand: “I really need someone to come down and help me.” This made the older gentleman furious. He called the youth pastor/choir director down to help me. He showed up with Chuck E. Cheese on his breath, fit to be tied that I would make such a ruckus. I told him he signed a pledge the stage would be cleared and I can’t do it myself.  So, he helped me, but I got the youth pastor silent treatment the whole time. But this wasn’t the only insult to my injury.

Next I asked where I could get changed. He pointed to a storage room off the stage. I could barely get inside with all the boxes and music stands. One box I noticed right away. Actually, several boxes—all containing photocopies of my plays. Dozens of them. There were probably 3 of my books with all the plays copied over and over. The youth pastor/choir director came in and saw me looking at the plays. He said: “Yeah, the youth pastor up the street got ahold of these plays from someone else and he let me copy them all. They’re hysterical. Really good skits.” I just kept staring at him, trying to figure out how to tell him I was the author and how uncool this was. Then the lightbulb went off in his head.

He said, “Oh man, you wrote those skits, didn’t you? We use ’em all the time.”

I was still looking at him for any sign of guilt or remorse for blatantly breaking copyright laws. Nothing. So, I prompted him: “Yeah, um, this is my work.”

“Your work? I thought it was the work of the Lord.”

“No, ” I said, “I mean, it’s my work. My job. This is how I make a living.”

“So, it’s not a ministry to you?”

I’d heard this line a thousand times and I had my response: “Yeah, and isn’t what you do your ministry?”


“And don’t you get paid for it?”

He shook his head. He was disgusted. “It’s not the same thing.”

Of course, I’d also heard this a thousand times too. This was just spiritual snobbery. “How come it’s not the same? I commit myself to God, the same as you. I’m preaching the word, the same as you. I went to school to study how to do this, the same as you.”

Man, this really cooked him up. Finally, his coup de grace: “Writing skits and doing plays is not the same as clergy ministry, okay? And if you were really serving Jesus, you’d be happy your work is being used.”

To which I replied: “Please don’t use Jesus to excuse your bad manners.”

Two weeks later, I got a note from the youth pastor. I, of course, expected a note of apology or understanding. He told me I wouldn’t be asked back. That I didn’t have a spirit of humility. And that he was going to write my publisher to tell them that I wasn’t representing their company well by demanding they buy copies. Oh sweet irony. Anyway, not many people I can share this story with now. Back in the old days when we were fighting the good fight to legitimize the use of theater in churches (it did get legitimized—then marginalized!)”

I can thankfully say that experiences like this one are rare.  The church… at least most…has come a long way in its understanding of art as it pertains to ministry… but some of those attitudes are still out there… He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

13 thoughts on “It’s Okay to Copy, Right?

  1. Michael says:

    I believe most churches are honest enough to know that they should compensate playwrights and musicians when they perform their works. Sadly, some aren’t. I had a church rewrite my Christmas drama that they had used for years to justify not paying me royalties for performing my work going forward. But they still used several of the characters that I had created. I eventually had to let it go. But it’s because that there are dishonest churches out there — a small number, I hope — that I only put partial reading copies of my scripts on my website.

    1. Jessi says:

      Yes, but many think that because they have CCLI that they can copy anything they want, INCLUDING things that specifically say that CCLI does NOT cover copying of that particular work.

  2. C. McNair Wilson says:

    CHUCK – -THANX!! I pray that everyone in music ministry, (heck) anyone in ANY ministry, reads this. Photocopying scripts is theft. It is a matter of federal law. EVERY BOOK has a copywrigt page (the backside of the title page, usually.) It says if you copy (even photocopy) this work you are breaking FEDERAL copyright laws.) Most public photocopy machines have signs on them –signs we ALL ignore.

    Might as well go to my bank and take out money that is not yours. I wonder if that youth minister (with the warehouse of STOLEN, photocopied scripts) would ever go to a church supply house and help himself to some pews, choir robes, candles, hymnals, and one big, heavy pulpit? “Hey, it’s for ministry.” He likely understands the legitimacy of the craftsmen (and women) who made those items having a right to earn a living and SELL their STUFF. Ideas are the STUFF, the “sacred furnishings,” of the playwright.

    Has anyone every b—-ed (complained) about being required to PAY for a new Bible? “It’s the word of GOD …it should be free!

    “Yes, mam, God’s word is free. The Bible is $29.95 + tax.”

    During a run of one of my one-man plays (at Lambs Players Theatre in San Diego) we had a Q&A after every performance—always lively and enjoyable.

    [The play is called “THE FIFTH GOSPEL”—It is the Jesus story from pre-manger to empty tomb. I portray about 20 characters with a chair, a broom, and a big red book. No period costuming, just shirt, slacks and comfortable shows—1500 performances and counting …]

    One night a man asked (in fairly harsh tones), “How can you justify charging for the Gospel?”

    “I don’t try to justify ‘charging’ for the gospel. The gospel is free, always has been.”

    “But we had to BUY tickets to see your show tonight!” He insisted.

    “AH! I see. Well …the GOSPEL is free. The ticket price is for an evening of theatre, that happens to be about the life of the man who claimed to be the son of God. If you didn’t like the performance, I will PERSONALLY refund your money. And then I’d like to share the gospel with you …AGAIN.”

    He nodded. Everyone else applauded. Afterwards several artists said they’d been asked the same question and now had a good answer.

    The story of the closet full of photocopied scripts is THEE REASON I have never written or published scripts for the church. AND …I am about to publish a huge Easter play I wrote last year for Colorado Christan University, based on Jerry Jenkins’ novel “Matthew’s Story.” The life of Christ as told by a Jewish tax collectors. Not sure how we’ll do performance royalties …fingers crossed.

    1. Chuck Neighbors says:

      Thanks for the story, McNair! If anybody out there wants a photocopy of McNair’s new book “Hatched” just let me know! 😉

  3. Bobby says:

    Chuck, At our Performing Arts Festivals. We usually have a class that we offer on copyright laws for this very reason. To educate churches that their are copyright laws and they apply just like any other ones. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Chuck Neighbors says:

      Bobby, Good to know and glad you are doing that… Wonder if it is more a case of “preaching to the choir” with that particular audience… but still the more people know the better!

  4. Beth Fine says:

    Thanks Chuck for this story. I lost y’all for a while. Your newsletters got sent into my junk even thought you’re on my address list.

    I actually laughed out loud at the mention of “publisher” before the word “irony.” Christian culture often gags the true minister. Well, “Revenge belongs to the Lord” and “He loves those whom he chastises.” So we must remain humble while He does his work to grow up a very spoiled church. Right? Oh…how far away Christians show themselves from wisdom when they ignore simple principles like “the worker is worth his due” or “walking the extra mile.”

    I had a similar experience on an All Saints Play and then repeated on a Epiphany presentation. After making all the costumes, running the rehearsals, pleading for parents’ help, but left to clear and then restore the altar area all by myself, I damaged my inner testimony for telling someone that I had never seen people disappear so quickly after flattering comments about the performance. That church split a year later and went through a lengthy, unsatisfying reconciliation.

    Oh, Lord, I must encourage myself like David at Ziklag.

    In Him Always,

    Beth Fine

  5. Bette says:

    Believe it or not, I had someone tell me the EXACT same thing … in a very derisive tone: “I thought you were doing this for the ‘ministry!'” After working months to write (a complete musical/drama) and train college kids for a touring group … pouring my heart and soul into their lives and the project (even giving up another paying job to do it!) … I was stunned. Fortunately, I was able to hold my “peace.” But, I did walk away from that encounter with a new understanding of how some people (thankfully – a very small minority!) just will not choose to “get it.” 😀

  6. Eric says:

    Chuck, these kinds of stories make me disappointed that the church ‘business’ is so profitable. After all, I thought clergymen were doing ‘the work of God’…

    1. Chuck Neighbors says:

      Eric, did you mean to say “unprofitable” instead of “profitable?” Everything in this story points to it being unprofitable. The artist/writer is having his work stolen, the publisher his having their publications stolen and even the youth pastor is likely strapped for funds, thus justifies “stealing.” Where is the profit? If you wanted to argue the case of people making excess profit from ministry there are plenty of stories to make that case… but not this one!

      As for clergymen doing the “work of God,” I think the Bible is pretty clear that a “worker is worthy of his hire.” While there are certainly some “bad apples” out there, the vast majority of clergy, missionaries, and ARTISTS that serve the church aren’t getting rich from it.

  7. disqus_gE8B5Jd5G7 says:

    Chuck, I smile to think what Chuck Tanner would have said to that person… esp if it has been HIS work. Truth is almost stranger than fiction. I think you should write a play about it!. (CMT would have) There are a hand full of lessons or spin offs from this. Amy J


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