The Fair Use Sermon: When Verbal And Visual Borrowing Cross The Line

Preliminary note from PG: He was not familiar with the term, “Homiletic” prior to reading this article from a publication called Homiletic . After a short bit of online research, he discovered the definition:

”of, relating to, or resembling a homily.”

PG thought he knew what a homily was, but again checked to make certain.

Definition of homily
1: a usually short sermon – a priest delivering his homily
2: a lecture or discourse on or of a moral theme
3: an inspirational catchphrase
also : PLATITUDE

Fully educated, PG pressed forward with the OP which appeared in Homoletic. He will note that the original was downloaded as a PDF and was a bit more difficult to handle than other PDF documents PG has encountered, so if the formatting is hinkey here and there, he apologizes.

From Homiletic Vol. 47, No. 1 (2022):

In April 2021, Religion News Service ran a series of articles related to the topic of plagiarism. The most notable of the articles, authored by editor Bob Smietana, was also the most ironic. The article opens by focusing on a woman attending virtual services with her congregation in Franklin, Tennessee. It chronicles her growing frustration with her minister’s  preaching, culminating in a “really not Jesus-like” tirade when she discovered the minister’s  sermon had been preached by another minister in Kentucky three years earlier. To add to her  minister’s pastoral and homiletic misconduct, this deeply troubled woman discovered that the  minister’s next sermon was a near word-for-word lifting—including a visual demonstration—of a sermon preached by none other than Mark Driscoll when Driscoll was still with his Mars Hill  Church in Seattle. The 2013 sermon was titled, “Do Not Steal.” Knowing Driscoll’s own history  with plagiarism, irony abounds. The woman’s minister resigned in 2017, only to be caught  committing the same pastoral crime in April 2021 at his new congregation in Woodhaven,  Michigan, again preaching old sermons from Driscoll. When asked by RNS about his use of  sermons from other preachers, the minister simply said that he had studied hard for his sermons  and had been run out of the congregation in Franklin due to a coup, leaving Smietana to conclude  that “the truth of the Bible can still come through, even with a pastor who plagiarized. But that  does not make it right.”

But what about the use of images in sermons? One of the issues that drew RNS attention  was that the minister in question, Zach Stewart, had not only used Driscoll’s sermons word-for- word, but had also plagiarized visual imagery such as gesturing how to shoot a bow and arrow and the use of Driscoll’s graphics. Preachers may search through sermons on Paul’s letters to the  Romans and come across an intriguing series by another preacher who has prepared excellent  graphics. Then a preacher’s next sermon collection on YouTube includes the exact same graphics, without credit given online to the originator of the material or in the accompanying printed or digital materials. We may chase the rabbit down the hole far enough to discover the congregational worship arts team that designed those eye-catching visuals in the first place. Or, in reviewing a student sermon, you find her selection of a visual image (one you seem to remember seeing years ago in your college art appreciation class) compelling. But when you search her notes to find any information regarding the image, you discover that there is no reference to any kind of source material. Is this simply bad research, or does it constitute plagiarism?

The issue of plagiarism, both verbal and visual, is not new to the preaching profession. As far back as 1952, Webb Garrison, then professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology, stated that, “Any minister can consistently produce original sermons. Yet there is a steady stream of instances in which plagiarism is detected in published works.”5 The Internet has made this practice of “borrowing” immensely easy. To be honest, this author has frequently been guilty of visual borrowing in the past. The pressure to preach stimulating insights accompanied by evocative visuals has increased in the pastoral marketplace due to the increasing expectation of those who hear and see our sermons.6 We have wrestled with this issue so much that “to cite or not to cite” is more than just an adaptation of Shakespeare’s immortal line from Hamlet.

Like it or not, preachers and worship leaders are bound by what is called “fair use” law for proprietary material. The desire to use others’ creative materials does have some limits, and when those limits are exceeded, the consequences can be serious. Ultimately, this essay is not about verbal plagiarism (i.e., the borrowing of another’s sermon), although it will touch on this concern. Instead, this essay seeks to broach a different discussion, one concerning the visual side of plagiarism—a topic of which there is a dearth of material, especially in homiletic literature. Looking first at the problem of both verbal and visual borrowing, this essay provides an explanation of fair use codes and concludes with a discussion of existing and creative solutions for crediting sources, especially as they relate to visual borrowing. The hope is to initiate a generative conversation regarding the topic of “fair use” in homiletical and liturgical discussions.

The Problem of Verbal and Visual Borrowing 

In a day when learning management systems arrive to campus with plagiarism detection software built into their coding, one would think that the issue of verbal and visual borrowing  would be on the decline. However, it seems that the problem is getting worse rather than better.   On one end of the spectrum is Rick Warren, who is famous for quoting Adrian Rogers: “If my  bullet fits your gun, then shoot it,” meaning he has no problem with other preachers using his material verbatim in their own preaching, teaching, and even writing. On the other end of the  spectrum are preachers like author (and former attorney) Carey Nieuwhof of Connexus Church in Ontario, who has argued that preachers should not provide sermons to a wider audience because the temptation to steal a sermon is great when the pressure is high. Both of these views  are adventures in missing the point. 

First, we need to ask what is the nature of the current problem with verbal borrowing in  sermons? There was a time when, in order to borrow a homiletical insight—or an entire homily—one had to consult books; in particular, sermon collections. Sermons have been  published for decades, with some modern major publishers running entire sermon series. For  example, one popular preacher in my denomination from a generation or two ago published a  handful of textbooks on preaching and pastoral ministry, even publishing a couple of collections  of sermons. This was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He continued to do so, even as he moved  back and forth between the church and the academy. That is, until he visited a former student of  his—without advanced warning—only to hear one of his own sermons preached word-for-word.  Then there were sermon tapes, and later CDs. Lynn Anderson is a popular preacher within my  denomination whose “tape ministry” was quite successful. That is, until the week the tape did not  record. Blank tapes were sent across the United States, much to the dismay of many preachers.  Anderson said that he decided to discontinue the taping of his sermons when he received a call  from one flustered preacher who asked what he would preach in a couple of weeks because he  only preached what Anderson had preached.

It is one thing to quote an insight from a popular preacher like Barbara Brown Taylor or Andy Stanley in a sermon. Neither is it unusual to cite a passage from the preacher’s favorite  biblical commentary. In doing so, the preacher develops a “discipline of invitation” which allows  other voices to be heard in the sermon, deflating the preacher’s own position of power and  conflating various streams of insight into one united voice. However, it is wholly another thing  to borrow these insights—or entire sermons—without attribution simply to create an Aha!  moment for the listeners. Recent statements from William Willimon such as “Stealing really isn’t  stealing if it’s done unselfishly for the good of my neighbor” and “My sermonic borrowing is an  indication of how much I love my people,” even if offered in jest, are ethically incompatible  with the preaching ministry. This is what Michael Knowles has referred to as the “stealing of  power” from another which perverts the sermon into a weapon of violence rather than an  instrument of peace. Reid and Hogan refer to this as a problem of inauthenticity. They note, “In reality, there is a lot of borrowing and influence that goes on in the production of anything  worth reading or hearing. That is a good thing. Once the term plagiarism is applied to borrowing  however, it suggests a large amount of uncited, verbatim usage rather than just influence. It also reframes the activity as a form of cheating.” The issue that is at play here is not ingenuity but integrity. As Tom Long has noted, “There is a difference between being a debtor and being a thief… Preachers who strive to tell the truth, who seek to honor the communion of saints, who desire to maintain the trust of the faithful community—that is to say, preachers with ethical integrity—will wrestle with these questions and make the best decision they can.”

On one hand, “intellectual property” is a thing that should be respected. While one preacher may be okay with anyone using his or her material, this is not and cannot be seen as a blanket view of those in the pastorate. On the other hand, any sermon, just like any book, can have value to a wider audience when used appropriately. As Bradley Munroe once humorously mused,

“Perhaps I am being much too negative about the possibilities for good and way too cautious about petty moral hindrances to good preaching. Imagine the possibilities: through the Internet good sermons could be universally available to every minister in the technologically advanced world. The ‘demise’ in modern preaching could be ‘cured’ overnight. My limited vocabulary and lack of theological insight would no longer hinder my congregation from growing into the likeness of Jesus Christ. Bible reading would return! Mission would explode! Maybe even evangelism would happen! Oh, it is too wondrous to think. I am giddy.”

The former view is confronting plagiarism head-on by embracing it as an option, while this latter view is preventing plagiarism at any cost.

It is hard to believe that Chris Stinnett’s article on citing our sources was written over twenty years ago. However it is still as timely as ever. There have been back-and-forth conversations as well as entire issues of academic journals dedicated to the topic. Yet the present essay is not about borrowing another preacher’s sermon. In 2022, if you still think borrowing another’s sermon (or sermon illustration or other portions of a sermon) without giving that preacher some form of credit is acceptable, then you need to seriously consider the unethical example that you are displaying to your congregation. As Jeffrey Peterson argued twenty years ago, we live in a “wired world,” meaning that we who speak for God must practice integrity in all aspects of our teaching ministry—including our use of creative sources such as audio, video, and visual imagery.

Link to the rest at Homiletic Vol. 47, No. 1 (2022) 

PG hesitates to make this post longer, but the OP generally used the term, “plagiarism” as equivalent to copyright infringement.

The Difference Between Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement

From Copyright Alliance:

There are many differences between plagiarism and copyright infringement, yet it can be easy to confuse these concepts. While both plagiarism and copyright infringement can be characterized as the improper use of someone else’s work, they are distinctly different improper uses of someone else’s work. The biggest difference is that copyright infringement is illegal, while plagiarism is not. This blog post discusses additional differences between the two and provides examples of each type of improper use.

What is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism occurs when a party attempts to pass someone else’s work or ideas off as their own, without properly giving credit to the original source. Plagiarism, while not against the law, is an ethical construct most commonly enforced by academic intuitions. Consequences of academic plagiarism may range from receiving a failing grade all the way to the revocation of a degree.

Plagiarism is not just limited to the academic setting. In the professional world, plagiarism has its own set of consequences, which may include sullying the plagiarizer’s reputation and in some instances termination and difficulty finding new employment. For example, in 2014 CNN fired a London-based news editor for repeated plagiarism offenses over a six month period, involving a total of 128 separate instances of plagiarism, mostly taken from Reuters.

Copyright, at its core, is the set of rights belonging to the creator or owner of a work of authorship that is original and fixed in a tangible medium of expression. This set of rights automatically vests to someone who creates an original work of authorship like a song, literary work, movie, or photograph. These rights allow a copyright owner to control who, when, where, and how their work is used, such as through the right to reproduce the work, to prepare derivative works, to distribute copies, and to perform and display the work publicly.

Copyright infringement occurs when a party takes an action that implicates one or more of the rights listed above without authorization from the copyright owner or an applicable exception or limitation in the copyright law, such as fair use. There can be significant legal consequences for copyright infringement, including injunctions, monetary damages, and in extreme instances criminal penalties.

The examples below illustrate some of the differences between plagiarism and copyright infringement.

Plagiarism But Not Copyright Infringement: A student copies a few sentences of a 20-page book illustrating and describing species of birds to use in article on evolution submitted for her high school newspaper but fails to provide a citation or footnote explaining that the information came from the book. This student may have committed plagiarism by not properly attributing the information and making it seem like the information originated from the student. However, the student will most likely not be found to have committed copyright infringement because such an inconsequential amount was used in an educational setting in a manner that is unlikely to harm the authors market for the work that the use is likely a fair use.

Copyright Infringement but Not Plagiarism: This time, the high school student copies the entire bird species book that she includes in several article published in the paper, but she puts a citation at the bottom of each article that includes the author’s name, the title of the book, and how the entire article is taken directly from the book. While the student properly attributed the author and did not try to pass the article off as her own work, she copied the entire work without permission, which likely infringes the author’s rights under copyright law.

Both Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement: A young writer, hoping to be published, copies line for line a popular wizard book series. The young writer sends the work to her publisher and says she wrote it. This author has committed plagiarism by submitting someone else’s work as her own and, in addition, has committed copyright infringement by copying someone else’s protected work without permission.

Link to the rest at Copyright Alliance

8 thoughts on “The Fair Use Sermon: When Verbal And Visual Borrowing Cross The Line”

  1. Here is the nub of the argument:

    In 2022, if you still think borrowing another’s sermon (or sermon illustration or other portions of a sermon) without giving that preacher some form of credit is acceptable, then you need to seriously consider the unethical example that you are displaying to your congregation.

    I shall leave aside the silly chronological snobbery of ‘In 2022’, as if it were a brand-new discovery that plagiarism is wrong. I merely note in passing that it is of the same shoddy construction as the rest of the argument.

    I now turn to the definition of plagiarism offered above:

    Plagiarism occurs when a party attempts to pass someone else’s work or ideas off as their own, without properly giving credit to the original source.

    Nobody expects a pastor to deliver a brand-new sermon entirely of his own creation every Sunday. Preachers are not Jesus, and churchgoers, with very few exceptions, are not apt to confuse the two. In an academic paper, one is required to cite sources for every quotation, and often for data or other source material not directly quoted as such. There are no footnotes in a sermon delivered by word of mouth; they would not be wanted by the audience; they would only spoil the effect by removing attention from the message to focus it on bibliographic details. Since there is also neither a requirement nor an expectation that a sermon shall be original work, the concept of plagiarism simply has no application here.

    If a preacher publishes his sermons, he should expect that they will be used by other preachers for homiletic purposes, in whole or in part. Most of his audience will consist of other preachers who are acquiring the published work for that very purpose. The number of people who buy and read sermons purely for their private pleasure or instruction is, I suspect, exceedingly small.

    • Yes, but “used” does not mean re-preached without attribution. It mostly means read, perhaps as a resource by other pastors, or perhaps by lay people for their own edification. Go back a few centuries and there were indeed sermons published to be preached from other pulpits, but that was because trained clergy capable to creating their own sermons were rare. This is not the expectation today, and has not been for a long time.

  2. I went to Dallas Theological Seminary. They teach the creation of your own sermon every time you preach. If you reference someone else, you cite it, just as you would in writing. Well-known professor J. Dwight Pentecost (yes, his real name), once said in chapel that he doesn’t even keep his sermon notes after he preaches because he wanted a fresh word from the Lord. That gets to the heart of it. I don’t judge other pastors or denominations, but in the typical Protestant or more succinctly Reformed denominations, we expect pastors to seek the Lord for guidance on the creation of a sermon. That pastor will take about 12 to 16 hours per week in sermon prep.

    • What you describe is how I understood sermon-creation to work. At my church (which I’m waiting to have start in 30 minutes), the pastor will always mention if a point he’s making was one made by another pastor he knows; frequently those other pastors are guest speakers. I thought all pastors made a point of saying, “As Brother So-And-So used to teach about XYZ…”

      Seriously skeptical of the pastors in the OP; of what value are they if they think their job is to do the equivalent of reading from a teleprompter? They’re not supposed to be CNN newsreaders.

    • This. Quoting from outside material is unremarkable. I always know when my pastor does this, because that outside material is explicitly cited.

  3. Very good comments. Thanks to all.

    My addition to the conversation is that there may be inadvertent plagiarism when someone remembers or misremembers something, including where they read or heard it. I expect that too many, “I can’t remember where I heard this, but here it is” explanations would definitely interfere with the flow of ideas and have an adverse effect on listeners.

    A long time ago, I remember hearing someone say, “The first two times I use what you said, I’ll give you credit, but after that it’s mine.”

    The statement was meant to be humorous, but it contained a grain of truth and I have definitely forgotten the source.

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