Like Napster patrons who downloaded music without paying for it, those who spread unauthorized versions of religious texts via the Internet face determined opposition from the groups that hold the copyrights.

The Philadelphia Church of God (PCG), a splinter group, is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to order that the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) release control of the book Mystery of the Ages. The WCG, which joined the National Association of Evangelicals in 1997, has repudiated the teachings of that book. It has been trying to prevent the PCG from selling the book, written by the late WCG founder, Herbert W. Armstrong.

The PCG, based in Edmond, Oklahoma, has aggressively promoted Mystery of the Ages via a television program and has taken orders for it on a Web site. PCG has also offered a copyright version of another Armstrong book, The United States and Britain in Prophecy. That book advances the theory of British Israelism, identifying Great Britain and the United States as home to people who traced their lineage to the so-called lost tribes of Israel. The current WCG leadership has rejected British Israelism as unbiblical.

In a different matter, the First Church of Christ, Scientist, mother church of the Christian Science movement, is spending $50 million over five years to build a library for the published and unpublished writings of founder Mary Baker Eddy. The library is part of a strategy to extend the church's control of Eddy's writings. (Current copyright law will extend protection for 45 years if the unpublished Eddy items are placed in the library.)

The action follows the church's legal effort to halt the retail sale of two volumes of "collecteana" by and about Eddy that have been distributed widely for nearly 50 years. "It had to do with the Web," First Church attorney David Bort told CT. "People began to advertise these books [for sale] in a way that had not been [done] before."

"This is a struggle between authority and popular movements," said Brenda E. Brasher, an assistant professor in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio, and author of Give Me That Online Religion (Jossey-Bass, 2001). "The Internet brings a new factor into this. It's a global bulletin board. The authorities are saying 'bad, bad, bad' and turning to the Internet to root out unauthorized use [of copyright texts]."

Suits over dissemination of copyright material—some involving the Internet—are far from new in religious circles. The Church of Scientology has aggressively pursued those who post its secret teachings online.

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The Norwegian branch of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of New York filed criminal charges against ex-Jehovah's Witnesses Kent Steinhaug and Jan Haugland of Norway in 1997. The charges alleged that Steinhaug and Haugland posted copies of Pay Attention to Yourselves and to All the Flock, a confidential manual for elders. The charges were later dropped, and the volume is still available online.

A judge issued an injunction last year against an evangelical group, Utah Lighthouse Ministries, prohibiting it from posting a confidential article on how members in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) can remove themselves from LDS church rolls (CT, March 6, 2000, p. 23).

A settlement in November 2000 protected the posting of links to Web sites that might contain copyright material.

Distribution Suppressed

The WCG case attracted national attention, including a front-page Wall Street Journal article. In September 2000, federal judges in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on a 2-1 vote that Armstrong legally willed his copyright of Mystery of the Ages to the WCG, which could restrict its distribution. The court majority said that despite the WCG action to suppress the book, PCG could not claim fair use in reprinting the entire book. Because they now believe Mystery of the Ages is "riddled with error," WCG officials say they feel a Christian duty to withhold the book.

The significance of the WCG ruling has grown in recent months after the Ninth Circuit cited its own ruling in another case. In its finding that Napster, the online music-sharing service, was allowing copyrights to be violated, the Ninth Circuit said: "Repeated and exploitative copying of copyrighted works, even if the copies are not offered for sale, may constitute a commercial use" that can be blocked under copyright laws.

Joseph Tkach Jr., pastor general of the WCG, told CT that should the U.S. Supreme Court refuse to hear the PCG's appeal, WCG lawyers will go after several overseas Web sites that post the complete text of Mystery of the Ages.

Sources close to the PCG legal team, who requested anonymity, said the Ninth Circuit's denial of PCG's claims threatened the "Betamax" Supreme Court decision, which permitted duplication of some copyright works (television programs) under certain circumstances.

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The Christian Science Church also acknowledges that the explosion of the Internet has in part motivated its efforts to gain additional protection for Eddy's writings by creating the library.

Stephen Danzansky, executive officer of the Mary Baker Eddy Library for the Betterment of Humanity, says the library's materials would be available for public access, but not for wholesale copying and distribution (which are now easier through the Internet).

"The law is catching up to the technology as it always does," Danzansky told CT. "Everybody's in the same boat when it comes to the Web. It makes you think about how to assure these protections."

Related Elsewhere

In 1996, Christianity Today briefly examined the many religious criticism sites online.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals September 2000 ruling (PDF | HTML) for the Worldwide Church of God is online, but the district court's order to stop distributing Mystery of the Ages is apparently no longer available.

Mystery of the Ages is still online at a variety of sites, including A Voice Cried Out.

Christianity Today's Weblog took note of the WCG decision when it was released.

Christianity Today's other coverage of the Worldwide Church of God includes:

From the Fringe to the Fold | How the Worldwide Church of God discovered the plain truth of the gospel. (July 15, 1996)

Splinter Groups Dismiss Leaders (Mar. 2, 1998)

Worldwide Church of God Joins NAE (June 16, 1997)

Christianity Today also covered the Utah Lighthouse Ministry's battle for its Web site.

The Utah Lighthouse Ministry site offers an area all about the lawsuit, including the complete settlement.

Kent Steinhaug's Watchtower Observer, which was sued by Norwegian Jehovah's Witnesses, has information about the suit.

Pay Attention to Yourselves and to All the Flock is still available at many sites. (And one great thing about the Web is that even if a controversial document disappears, it doesn't necessarily disappear altogether.)

In 1999, profiled Scientology's war on the Web. Many other similar articles abound online. Meanwhile, Operation Clambake and other sites offer secret Scientology documents.

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