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Who Owns The Ten Commandments?

One of the more curious features of the Ten Commandment controversy is the discovery that Chief Justice Roy Moore has a copyright on the monument. The copyright symbol is not readily visible. You have to walk to the rear of the monument and look down on the base to find it, but it is there. There are three names chiseled into the granite beside the copyright symbol. They are: Richard Hahnemann, the sculptor who made the monument; Stephen Melchoir, Justice Moore’s attorney; and of course Roy S. Moore.

What exactly does this mean? Well, according to a legal dictionary a copyright is, “a proprietary right designed to give the creator of a work the power to control that work’s reproduction, distribution, and public display or performance, as well as adaptation to other forms.”<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Unfortunately, my legal training is not very extensive, so I also had to look up “proprietary.” Among the other definitions were these words: “privately owned and managed.”
 
It is not uncommon for Scripture translations to be copyrighted. A translation is a creative and scholarly endeavor. The final product is normally a unique rendering of the biblical text and therefore understandably subject to copyright protection.
 
But the Ten Commandments monument is based on the King James Version of the Bible. The old King James translation is part of the public domain. Anyone can use it or re-print it, but no one owns it. Well, until now.
 
Of course this certainly explains a good bit. If Justice Moore thinks the Ten Commandments are his private property, then he is free to do with them as he pleases. He can put them on a wooden plaque and decorate his courtroom with them. He can use them in his political campaigns, such as when he calls himself the “Ten Commandments Judge.”
 
As owner of the Ten Commandments he can obviously have them inscribed on a 2-ton granite monument and install them in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme court building. He can also allow D. James Kennedy to video tape that installation and then sell the tapes for $20 a pop.
 
I guess this explains his anger over being told by the federal courts that the monument must be removed from the rotunda. If he thinks of it as his personal property, then the court’s order to remove the monument is fairly intrusive.
 
Who really owns the Ten Commandments? I was taught to believe that they ultimately belong to God. After all, we do refer to the scriptures as “God’s word.” If that is true, what is it Judge Moore thinks he has a proprietary right to?
 
Traditionally, the community of faith has viewed itself as servants of the scriptures, not owners. In fact, this is one of the more puzzling features of this whole debate. You would think communities of faith would be outraged by a proprietary use of scripture. Surely we know and believe that no one person can claim ownership of the scriptures. If anything, scripture owns us.
 
I don’t know if Justice Moore thinks he owns the Ten Commandments or not. I just know I would feel a lot better if he at least copyrighted the monument in the name of the legitimate owner. Of course, that would have limited how the judge could use the monument, or whether there would be a graven monument at all.
 
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.