On the morality of using Church content in a commercial app

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hiltonc
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On the morality of using Church content in a commercial app

Postby hiltonc » Thu Jul 22, 2010 11:04 am

I am frequently delighted by all of the great content that the Church has made available on its website: talks, books, manuals, artwork, music, videos, … the list just keeps growing. As a mobile app developer, whenever I learn of new content that has been published on the Church website, my natural inclination is to ask myself how I can enhance the value of that content by making it more accessible in new and delightful ways for mobile devices. The wheels in my head start turning as I begin to imagine all sorts of creative and innovative ways to process, transform, present, and make this content more discoverable and interactive.

It is thinking like this which has led to several really great mobile apps in the last few years, apps that many members of the Church really benefit from. We now see the Church producing some of these fine apps itself through community projects, but the way was paved, and will continue to be paved, by independent entrepreneurs with vision and drive. This is as it should be: mavericks try out new ideas, while the Church institutionalizes the larger successes. It allows for the conservative use of Church resources while still benefiting from accelerated exploration. Unfortunately, it has also led to a lot of apps that are nothing more than a thin veneer over Church content which is being resold. I think we can agree that the former is laudable, while the latter is deplorable.

I bring this up because I'm struggling to define for myself what is right and wrong as far as use of Church content. I'm not particularly interested at this time in what is "legal", because as far as I can tell the Church is not enforcing it's intellectual property rights over these apps. If I ever wrote an app using Church content that the Church asked me to remove, I would immediately comply. I seriously doubt the issue would ever be taken to court. What I'm interested in is: what's the right thing to do?

Let's get down to specifics. So far there have been two "killer" mobile apps: the scriptures, and ward/stake directories. These are the two apps that most new LDS smartphone owners download first. I think I've designed what will become a third "killer" app, one that members of the Church will find very, very useful. I think it will have a significant positive impact on the spiritual growth of families. I expect to sell the app for a modest amount in order to compensate me for the time and effort it takes to put this together and subsequently market and support it. My dream is to be able to write and sell mobile apps full time that benefit members of the Church, make the world a better place, and no thank you, I don't want to work for the Church.

To accomplish its purpose, the app will need to make use of a variety of different collections of Church content available on the website. There are a number of ways that I can imagine the app getting the content:

  1. The content could be distributed with the app. I think it is clear that the only way I could do this would be to get explicit permission from the Church. I've tried getting permission from the Church to use content in a non-profit app before… I filled out the form, I waited, I inquired, I waited, I inquired, I waited… let's just say that that app is still sitting on the shelf, gathering dust, while other developers have released similar--though inferior ;)--for-profit apps that bundle the content. I assume that they never bothered to get permission or decided to release without waiting.
  2. The app could download the content from the Church website and transform it as needed on-device for presentation to the user. I'm still not sure if the website Terms of Use allow for this. Remember, I'm not concerned with legal ramifications, I'm concerned with doing the right thing. So if I could get a little bit of clarification from the Church on how to interpret the Terms of Use, this would probably be the right way to do it. Unfortunately, this is a lot of work to implement, and the user experience isn't so great. If you ever heard complaints about My LDS Stake being slow, you'll understand.
  3. The app could download the content from my own website, which would serve as a proxy for the Church website. This is similar to #2, but allows me to do the transformation of content on my website, which is a lot beefier than a mobile device. It can potentially cache transformed content as well. This method is probably nixed by the website Terms of Use.


The app is half developed now, and it is gorgeous. It's also indefinitely on-hold. If I simply cannot use Church content in a commercial app, fine. I'll move on. I hope I can find a way to make this work though. Any thoughts?

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Postby jessestay » Thu Jul 22, 2010 12:42 pm

I will let others speak as to the legalities, but let me leave my own opinions (note that I speak for myself and not as a representative of the Church here) - while I don't have any problem personally with making money off of the Church, could those efforts be better spent donating that time?

For instance, for ideas you might have, I have organized a "Social Prototyping" group to help generate proofs-of-concept that we can share with the Church and hopefully get these ideas in front of the departments that would benefit so they can have something to touch and play with as we pitch our ideas. I would love to use your ideas in this group to help further the work of the Lord rather than the Church noticing a good commercial app and having to build it later, potentially having to compete with that commercial app. It also might be that the Church is already internally considering this app.

In regards to compensation for time spent, that's a valid point. Could you provide a better quality product by commercially producing it than the Church could with its limited resources? Personally, I think in areas where we have only little time to donate, that is where the power of the masses comes in. If all of us, rather than commercializing our efforts, instead donated the little time we had to contribute to a much more unified, larger effort, could we get more done as one mass, each person in that mass with little time, than a single commercial entity? I don't know the answer to that question.

Again, I'm only voicing my personal thoughts on this - I do work for the Church, but I was a community member long before I worked for the Church. I guess in the end it comes down to prayer, and following the promptings of the Spirit.

If you want to learn more about the Social Prototyping, we're just getting started, but feel free to add your ideas to the wiki: https://tech.lds.org/wiki/index.php/Social_Prototyping

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hiltonc
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Postby hiltonc » Thu Jul 22, 2010 1:32 pm

jessestay: I just checked out the social prototyping page and it is indeed cool. I would love to see the two listed projects materialize, and there are certainly a lot of other ideas waiting to be added.

You're right to point out that there are many ways of contributing to build up the kingdom. We could have a very lengthy discussion about the merits of one or the other, and I'm very tempted to get into that, but I'm worried that it will derail my original question. I probably laid out enough detail to completely derail my own question in the original post anyway :).

What I'm trying to figure out is, given that I want to create a commercial app, and given that it needs to operate on content provided by the Church website, is there a way I can do that such that it is clear that customers are purchasing the software to perform a specific function, and not purchasing the content? Can it be done in such a way that is congruous with the website Terms of Use?

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Postby Mikerowaved » Thu Jul 22, 2010 2:12 pm

hiltonc wrote:What I'm trying to figure out is, given that I want to create a commercial app, and given that it needs to operate on content provided by the Church website, is there a way I can do that such that it is clear that customers are purchasing the software to perform a specific function, and not purchasing the content? Can it be done in such a way that is congruous with the website Terms of Use?

I understand you've been down this route before, but in all sincerity, the right people to answer your questions is probably the Church's IP office. For reference, they can be contacted here...

Phone: 801-240-3959 or 1-800-453-3860, ext. 2-3959
Fax: 801-240-1187
E-Mail: cor-intellectualproperty@ldschurch.org

or by writing to:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Intellectual Property Office
50 E. North Temple
18th Floor, Salt Lake City, UT 84150-3012

I would be interested in hearing their views on the subject, as you are certainly not the first to ask these types of questions.
So we can better help you, please edit your Profile to include your general location.

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Postby mkmurray » Thu Jul 22, 2010 7:27 pm

hiltonc wrote:What I'm trying to figure out is, given that I want to create a commercial app, and given that it needs to operate on content provided by the Church website, is there a way I can do that such that it is clear that customers are purchasing the software to perform a specific function, and not purchasing the content? Can it be done in such a way that is congruous with the website Terms of Use?

Hey Hilton, great to hear from you; hope you're doing well! :)

So here's something to chew on, albeit it is my own personal thoughts from 2 years ago on the matter of the online scriptures and their Terms of Use:

http://tech.lds.org/forum/showthread.php?p=17322#post17322

This post is complimentary to the previous one: http://tech.lds.org/forum/showthread.php?p=19681#post19681

And this thread is about the past project I keep mentioning in the posts at the above links: http://tech.lds.org/forum/showthread.php?t=113
Many questions are already answered on the LDSTech wiki. Check it out!

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hiltonc
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Postby hiltonc » Thu Jul 22, 2010 8:59 pm

Mikerowaved wrote:I understand you've been down this route before, but in all sincerity, the right people to answer your questions is probably the Church's IP office. For reference, they can be contacted here...


You're right, these are the right people to answer my questions. I've emailed them and will follow up again next week. I doubt I'll get anything more definitive this time, but if I do I'll post it here.

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hiltonc
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Postby hiltonc » Thu Jul 22, 2010 9:05 pm

mkmurray wrote:Hey Hilton, great to hear from you; hope you're doing well! :)

So here's something to chew on, albeit it is my own personal thoughts from 2 years ago on the matter of the online scriptures and their Terms of Ushttp://tech.lds.org/forum/showthread.php?t=113e...


Hi Mike, good to hear from you too! And I really appreciate these links. This is pretty much how I interpret the Terms of Use, but I wanted to see if there's any consensus. Screen scraping in-app is a hard road to take, but it seems like the only option.

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WelchTC
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Postby WelchTC » Fri Jul 23, 2010 6:09 am

To use any church content you need to get a license from the Church. The Church is very aware of all of the products that do not have licenses and is or will contact them to be in compliance with the Churchs terms of use. However let me make a few comments:

1. Apps that deal with membership data from the Church MUST have approval. The Church owns all of the data and protects the privacy of members of the Church worldwide and also respects the laws of the various countries we operate in. Misuse of that data may significantly harm individuals and/or the Church. Specific examples of this are when people screen scrap the data and store it on their servers (proxying).

2. All of the Church's content has various copyright restrictions. So people should not redistribute content without the Church's approval and a license agreement. As an example (and I am NOT saying that this is a valid example), you may see a picture we have on the web and feel that you can use it in your app. However our rights to use the picture may be restricted to the web and so now the picture starts to show up on a mobile device or in a printed document. The Church does not always own the content it distributes but has license agreements it has to abide by from the creators. (Examples include artwork, magazine articles, etc). I know it seems daunting but please work with the proper intellectual properties people to get license to redistribute.

3. We use the community to help us with our apps so that we CAN harness great ideas and innovation. If you have an idea that you would like to share with the community, let me know. I'm not saying that you have to share your idea, only trying to convey the point that innovation can happen within the community environment as well and that is why we setup this environment.

If you would like to sell your app, I wish you success but ask that you please seek approval before you deal with content or data from the Church.

Thanks much!

Tom

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hiltonc
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Postby hiltonc » Fri Jul 23, 2010 7:30 am

tomw wrote:To use any church content you need to get a license from the Church. The Church is very aware of all of the products that do not have licenses and is or will contact them to be in compliance with the Churchs terms of use.


I think the Church should, but we'll see. I'll pursue the licensing angle as far as the IP office is responsive, but can I assume that your comments do not extend to option #2 from my original question? Specifically, that writing a mobile app which downloads and uses information from the Church website does not require such a license agreement? I think it is reasonable to consider such an app to be a specialized "web browser" that allows a user to view and download Church content for "personal, noncommercial use."

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jbowne
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I have and will continue to buy..

Postby jbowne » Fri Jul 23, 2010 10:37 pm

Just some thoughts from the consumer side. I have an ipad and I researched the diff between MyLDSStake and iStake. I liked what I saw in MyLDSStake and didn't think twice about purchasing it. I also have shelled out the dollars to try both the versions of scriptures that are available.

As we all know there will be those that feel that everything that is made by anyone that has anything to do with the Church should be free ;) I disagree with that. Personally (these are my personal opinions) is that anything that is released from the Church should follow what the Church does with all kinds of material - either it is free or it is at a very low cost to cover the expense of producing whatever it is.

As Tom mentioned - go in the front door, go through the proper channels to get the approvals needed. Then I say go for it :) I believe technology is for efficiency - all the better. Our calendars are overbooked and I don't see that changing anytime soon..

So my own personal question - will you please make something for the microsoft platform (Windows 7 phone!) or the new devices like the HP slate etc... the iPad is cool but ..

thanks!


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