A ruling by a federal district court in New York on a case involving copyright ownership underscores the need for churches to set clear policies and procedures regarding how content is created, who owns it, and how it is used.
Menachem Mendel Schneerson began teaching in the 1950s at weekly services and festivals for his Jewish sect. Schneerson became the seventh grand rebbe (the highest office) of the Lubavitcher group of Hasidic Jews. His teachings are aligned with the Chabad-Lubavitcher Chasidic Community. Hasidic Jews prohibit writing and recording on the Sabbath, so his teachings were not recorded. His adherents committed his teachings to memory, and over time, they began reducing them to writing. Schneerson edited what they transcribed and added references; the resulting compilations were eventually published and distributed.
In the 1970s, Schneerson and his followers incorporated a corporation to preserve and publish his teachings ("Publisher"). The rabbi continued his teachings in the temple during Shabbat services and festivals, and members of the Publisher continued to compile and publish his teachings (titled the Likkutei Sichos—which means “collected talks”) after Schneerson’s review and approval.
Schneerson died in 1994. Several years later, another group, headed by the Executor of his estate, began publishing the rebbe’s teachings. The Publisher objected to this group publishing the teachings, and a series of lawsuits ensued. The Publisher claimed it was the sole copyright owner of the teachings. The other group disagreed. The matter grew highly contentious.
In late September, a federal court ruled on several key aspects of the dispute. The issue presented to the court turned on ownership of the teachings. Copyright law makes the author the owner unless the work was created by an employee within the scope of the employee's duties and responsibilities. The court said the Publisher could not prove the rebbe was ever an employee of the Publisher, so the copyright was still owned by the author.
Copyright law requires that all transactions involving a copyright must be in writing to be effective. The Publisher could not produce any written proof demonstrating that the author transferred ownership of the teachings to the Publisher. In conclusion, the court said that, aside from a lingering question about the ownership of one work, the other group is free to publish all of Schneerson’s remaining works.