And Now It Belongs to the World

On May 28, 2004 , the copyright on A Course in Miracles passed away for good. That was the last day that the Foundation for A Course in Miracles (FACIM) could appeal the judgment by Judge Robert Sweet, signed on April 27, which voided the copyright. A Course in Miracles will now be forever without copyright. To put that more accurately, the First Edition of the Course (minus the Clarification of Terms, which remains under copyright) will be forever without copyright. FACIM still holds the copyright on the Second Edition, the numbered edition. However, since virtually all of the words in the Second Edition are also in the First Edition, what FACIM owns is primarily the numbering system, not the words. Those words can be used by anyone, in any way.

The judge did not release the earlier versions of the Course— the Hugh Lynn Cayce version, the Urtext, and Helen Schucman’s shorthand notebooks—from copyright. He decided that they were not a part of the Course’s copyright. Both sides have told me that this matter is now closed. As a final step, Endeavor is now proceeding with the attempt to void the trademark/servicemark on the name “A Course in Miracles” and the acronym “ACIM.”

It has taken so long to reach this moment that it may be difficult to fully appreciate it. It has been twelve years since—following the publication of Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love —the copyright holder of the Course first began to limit the ability of authors to quote from the Course. Things got extremely tight in 1999, when FACIM was given the copyright and threatening letters were sent to a number of Course centers, churches, and Internet discussion groups. At that time, a real pall fell over the Course community as several lawsuits, and a lot of acrimony, sprang up.

That pall has taken its toll. Authors have been afraid to quote from the Course, students have felt disillusioned, and the Course has understandably been somewhat in decline in the world, or so it appears. Study group numbers are down from their high several years ago, there are fewer centers and newsletters, there have been no bestselling books based on the Course in a long time, and the conventional wisdom in the publishing industry is that A Course in Miracles is yesterday’s news. Now when I mention the Course to people, I sometimes hear, “Oh yeah, wasn’t that popular about ten years ago?”

But now that pall has been lifted. People are free to use the words of the Course however they see fit. Bestselling authors such as Marianne Williamson can quote from the Course as much as they want. Collections of Course passages, like the >Gifts from ‘A Course in Miracles‘ series by Roger Walsh and Frances Vaughan, can be created again. Course commentators can quote extensively in their works; indeed, new commentators may step forward. Songwriters can publish songs which put the Course’s words to music. Internet discussion groups can quote freely without fear of being shut down.

This freedom, however, does have a downside. Since anyone can now publish the Course, we may soon have new versions of the Course in which wording has been freely altered to accommodate the publisher’s sensibilities. Many are concerned that chaos will result, as the public becomes confused about exactly what A Course in Miracles really is.

The question, therefore, naturally arises: Is this freedom a good thing? In the rest of this article, I would like to offer my own views on this. Personally, I feel that the ideal would have been for the Course to be under copyright, but with that copyright held in a generous and liberal way, as it was from 1976 until 1992. However, given that that was not going to happen, I do think that complete freedom from copyright is best. Yes, I expect abuses of one sort or another, but I would rather that the Course be free, and that we as a community try to deal with abuses when they come up, than it continue to labor under restrictions.

Three stories have shaped my sense about this. The first is the story of It’s a Wonderful Life, the classic Frank Capra movie starring Jimmy Stewart. When it debuted in 1946 it was not a huge hit with either audiences or critics, and afterwards slipped quickly into obscurity. What transformed it into the Christmas classic it has become was >the expiration of its copyright in 1973. Because of this, any television station could show it for free, as often as it wanted, and so the movie started to play constantly between Thanksgiving and Christmas. People began recognizing what a remarkable film it was. Many made it a family tradition to watch it each year. Critics revisited it and decided it was one of the best films ever made. It soon became the staple of American holiday culture that it is today. The downside to this was that the movie was colorized, something which both Capra and Stewart strongly objected to but which neither could stop. In my mind, however, this was a small price to pay for It’s a Wonderful Life being lifted from obscurity into one of the most beloved and acclaimed films of all time. I think something similar could happen with the Course—the voiding of its copyright could lead to it becoming far more acknowledged and respected than ever before.

The second is the story of the scribing and publication of A Course in Miracles, a story which contains striking parallels with the Course’s copyright saga. The Course’s original custodians were sincere but fallible human beings who didn’t grasp the true nature of the story they were part of. They didn’t believe the Course was meant for a wider audience, and so they kept it under a cloak of secrecy, locked up in their closet, so to speak. Yet it was not destined to remain there. It was as if the Course’s unseen author would not let it be contained, and worked from behind the scenes to liberate the Course from their closet and give it to the world.

It is not hard to see that history has repeated itself. For those who believe the Course was written by Jesus, it is not a stretch to assume that he has done it again, that he has liberated the Course from yet another closet, in service of his larger designs for it. If so, he used an unlikely vehicle: Endeavor Academy, which has always been a controversial organization, both in Course circles and beyond. Yet Jesus has a penchant for using unlikely vehicles, as the story of the Course amply attests. Whatever else one may think of Endeavor, in this matter we all, I believe, owe them a debt of gratitude.

The third is the story of Jesus, not the story of his life but the story of his influence on Western culture. In Jesus Through the Centuries, Jaroslav Pelikan charts the many ways in which different eras have viewed Jesus. One of Pelikan’s more interesting conclusions is that as the power of the Church began to wane after the Middle Ages, respect for Jesus actually grew. Each ensuing secular age found in him an exemplar of its highest values. It was as if the walls of the Church were too confining for Jesus, as if he had something to give the world that was so big that it could only be given once he had been liberated from those walls. Pelikan concludes the book with these stirring words:

The later chapters of this book show that as respect for the organized church has declined, reverence for Jesus has grown. For the unity and variety of the portraits of “Jesus through the centuries” has demonstrated that there is more in him than is dreamt of in the philosophy and Christology of the theologians. Within the church, but also far beyond its walls, his person and message are, in the phrase of Augustine, a “beauty ever ancient, ever new.”

Pelikan then closes with a line that sounds as if it was written for the current situation:

And now he belongs to the world.