Control At Any Cost: Copyright vs Christian Rock

C. Michael Pilato playing the guitar

Reader C. Michael Pilato sent us this story…

I’ve known about the terms “copyright” and “trademark” for as long as I’ve been able to read cereal boxes at the breakfast table. But I didn’t became aware of copyright and the surrounding issues until I was in college. Sadly, our introduction wasn’t all handshakes and smiles.

I play the guitar. I started teaching myself how to do this in high school, when my primary taste in music was so-called Christian rock. I carried my interest in the guitar with me into college at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where I developed a second love affair – with the Internet.

At some point early in my college days, someone introduced me to OLGA, the Online Guitar Archive. OLGA had the straightforward goal of providing a single location where guitarists of all shapes and sizes could download and contribute plaintext files that described how to play particular pieces of classical or popular music on the guitar. I gathered while traipsing around through newsgroups and such that OLGA was pretty popular with amateur guitarists like myself. There was only one small problem with OLGA from my perspective – it didn’t have much music from the bands I listened to. So, I decided to dedicate a portion of the web-accessible disk space allotted to me by UNCC to host a site like OLGA, but dedicated to contemporary Christian music (CCM). And with just a handful of transcriptions I’d done myself (and also submitted to OLGA for inclusion there), and some severely lacking website design skills, I began the CCM Guitar Music Archives.

I advertised the CCMGMA on the newsgroup, routinely asking for contributions, and trying to cover myself legally by asking would-be contributors to “respect all laws regarding copyright, patent, The Club(tm), and other such neat-0 anti-theft devices”. Of course, if you’ve read anything at all here at, you should be able to spot quickly that I knew about copyright’s true purpose exactly what most of America knows about it, which is to say I knew practically nothing. But contributions started to flow in, and the site’s popularity started to grow. I recall a day when, flipping through an Internet-focused book in a Christian bookstore, I arrived at an appendix in the back listing top-tens of various categories of websites. There I discovered that my little website (complete with the tell-tale tilde in the URL) was considered one of the top ten music-related resources for Christians on the World Wide Web. UNCC eventually even had to ask me to move the site to my home ISP’s servers because they felt it was generating too much traffic on their network.

In February of 1996, I tried to visit OLGA’s website, but was greeted with a message about some legal issue they were having with a major publishing company. Knowing that any legal issue they were having was likely one I could wind up having, too, I temporarily brought the CCMGMA offline. I continued to watch OLGA for clues about the waters clearing, and eventually brought my site back up. I tightened up my submission policies to explicitly disallow renditions of songs for which you could purchase guitar sheet music from a music store. Again, my whole understanding of copyright was basically that it existed to protect artist’s profits. In my mind, no profiting artists meant no music to listen to, so I did not in any way want to contribute to that scenario. I had to deny a few contributions under this new policy, but my conscience was clear.

And then it happened. A representative of a Christian music publishing company contacted me via email and indicated that I needed to immediately remove all the works on my site that were associated with artists contracted to them. I don’t recall now if I tried to get a good explanation of why from the representative. I do recall the bewilderment I felt as I wrestled with the fact that it was a Christian publishing house that was forcing my hand. (I’ve learned much since then about the peculiarities of the word “Christian” when used as an adjective.) But none of this mattered. What mattered was that I was a college kid with no sizable income, and I had this vision looping in my head of my parents wringing their hands and asking of me through columns of steels bars, “Mike, what have you done?!” I took the CCM Guitar Music Archives offline, eventually handing the whole collection of nearly 300 contributions to someone else who wanted to try to keep the idea alive. And just like that, three years of making what I felt was a small but positive impact on one segment of the world were finished.

To this day, I still wonder if even a single penny of publisher profit was negatively affected by my site or OLGA or any number of similar collections of user-contributed guesswork. Never did I hear from my contributors that, thanks to my site, they no longer needed to buy CDs or cassettes. In fact, I suspect these sites existed at all because of folks listening to purchased music over and over and over again while trying to discern amidst a wash of drum fills and screaming vocals what their favorite guitarist might have been playing in a given song. Besides, doesn’t the Good Book tell us that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”?

15 Comments on "Control At Any Cost: Copyright vs Christian Rock"

  1. I’ve been disappointed with Christians on the copyright issue. You’d think, that because of their religion, they’d be the first to question copyright. Unfortunately, they still believe the myths about copyright, and they feel that fighting copyright is fighting a fair law. So in practise, it’s the pirates who don’t have consciouses (Christian or not), who first wake up to the myths of copyright.
    I think there’s a decent biblical case against copyright. Maybe someone should start
    I also think it’s ridiculous to ask churches for copyright licence fees in order to praise the Lord.
    I’ve been looking for some time now for Christian Creative Commons music. But I can’t find any. When I saw the title of this post I was hoping you’d be revealing some. Do you know any?

    1. I don’t know any freely licensed Christian music in particular (sorry). But that doesn’t mean there’s none out there, and if anyone knows of some, I hope they’ll post here.

      By the way, I haven’t noticed Christians holding a statistically different position from non-Christians on copyright any more than on other issues. But if you can find a biblical argument against copyright, please use it! We need all the help we can get.

  2. It surprises me how many people on Youtube are singing copyrighted songs and they aren’t being banned. I make worship guitar instructional DVD’s and have gotten all the legal copyrights.

    I just assummed it would be OK to make a ‘store loop’ with just a few seconds of some of the songs. Boy was I surprised that it’s not OK. One of the companies was OK with this, but the biggest were not.

    I couldn’t even play just the partial lyric “I’m coming back” from ‘The Heart of Worship’ without paying for it. I coudln’t believe it! It’s just a 5 minute store loop showcasing 4 DVD’s with 24 songs.

    I ended up just using a small portion of Amazing Grace in English and Spanish. That’s a public domain song and ‘safe.’ The video is posted at youtube but has no copyrighted materials.

    It’s probably because these companies have lost so much business from illegal downloads that they’ve gotten really strict with any use of the songs. …. not sure why they haven’t made youtube remove all the homemade videos with copyrighted songs.

    I’m glad you weren’t charged and that they did give you a chance to remove the songs first.

    God Bless,
    Jean Welles

  3. Thank you for taking to blog on this issue. It’s something I am rather passionate about.
    Restrictive copyright prevents people from using copyrighted works to minister to others and share the gospel. I wrote an essay on this subject a few years ago. It’s still online at

    Those asking for Free Christian music resources should check out Not everything there is completely free (some of the authors expect CCLI royalties) but there is a lot of music there.



  4. I cannot begin to believe that this kind of restrictive practise does anything to increase revenues for Christian musicians, publishers, or labels.

    I’m coming at this from a slightly different angle; I’m Jewish, and I attended Jewish summer camps as a kid and as a teenager. In college, I was a camp counselor and also a songleader.

    I assume that technically some type of performance or royalty fees were due to the writers of the songs we sang. But even without those fees, our campers were introduced to that music, went home and bought records (yep, I’m pretty old!), badgered their parents to take them to concerts by those performers …

    I’d assume that the Christian music world has similar viral phenomenon, and C. Michael Pilato’s article describes another such channel. How stupid to shut it down.

    Ami Ohayon

  5. You asked for it, you got it. Although I thought that .org was more appropriate than .com.
    I’ve just registered where (once live) you will find arguments encouraging Christians to de-restrict their creations, an ever growing list of unrestricted resources (not just music) and a forum on which we can discuss these issues and share stories of copyright woes. See you there.

    Phil Ward.

  6. Phil, what a great thing to do! Congratulations on the new site (which looks good so far — I just visited it), and to make things a bit easier for people, I’ve edited your comment above so that the URL is actually a live link. I hope that’s okay.


  7. I think your experience is unfortunate.

    Yet this makes me think that the solution is not necessarily abolition of copyright,
    but instead the promotion of a broad pool of new music under licenses like Creative Commons BY or the Free art license or even just donating the work into the public domain.

    The movement of the Christian publishing industry towards a “religious songs subject to copyright” model from the previous “hymns may be performed freely” model is emblematic of the broader shift in our society towards monetization of intellectual property in every setting.

    I am not one of those who opposes copyright per se (though the extensions and the poor state of fair use need reform, in my view). I am instead one who supports a world in which
    creators of new music make that music available. The netlabel movement in electronic music shows that a rich body of specialized music can be created under CC licenses, if a niche audience supports that music. Christian music can be similarly supported. Makers of Christian music have the huge advantage that a substantial canon of public domain hymns can be performed without copyright concern, and that contemporary re-settings of this music could produce songs both familiar and free to use and license.

    In my view, so long as we who create music facilitate a world in which all songs are imprisoned by copyright, we will encourage a world in which music we love cannot be shared.

    Thus I favor the “velvet revolution” of donating works into CC. We can be the change we seek–and if we show others where to find this music, we can change the way things are, with or without the help of Congress.

    Robert, who records music as gurdonark
    and co-owns the netlabel Negative Sound Institute

  8. I read an article the other day that said the internet helped people increase sales as people became more aware of it and purchased the original, its sad what peoples perceptions are I do think that copyright has gone to far and those that should get the benefit don’t.

  9. I suspect these sites existed at all because of folks listening to purchased music over and over and over again while trying to discern amidst a wash of drum fills and screaming vocals what their favorite guitarist might have been playing in a given song.