Death of the CCEL?

I have today received what is possibly one of the most depressing emails that I have seen in many years.  It’s a threatening email from someone I’ve never heard of. He says that he is the moderator of the CCEL site.  He wants to know why I’m “selling their work” (i.e. including an old public domain version of the Ante-Nicene Fathers files from their site on my CDROM of the Additional Fathers) and tells me that I’ll “be hearing from our business office”. 

What makes this depressing is the origin of it; the CCEL.  I suppose that this could be a hoax, but I have my doubts.  If genuine, it marks the passing of one of the champions and pioneers of open access online.

As far as I knew, the files and their contents are public domain in every jurisdiction in the world.  But who will feel able to use them freely — include them in CDROM’s, as I have done, or any other form of distribution — if they get threats when they do?

When I first came onto the internet in 1997, the presence at CCEL of the 38-volume collection of the fathers, freely copyable by anyone, was a shining example to us all.  It was all public domain, and everyone could do anything they wanted with it.  This led to a burst of imitative sites, and was the direct inspiration for everything that I have done online myself in the Tertullian Project and the Additional Fathers.

But times have changed.  If this email is right, it seems that it is dwindling into another commercial site, with emphasis on its ‘rights’, on control, on owning, licensing.   A look at the fresh new copyright notice on its site makes that clear.

I’ve written to Harry Plantinga, founder of the CCEL, to query this one. But whatever he replies, the direction in which the CCEL is going seems all too clear.  Stupidly enough, 10 years after a public domain version of the ANF appeared online, we may need to create one again, whose copyright status as public domain is clear and unassailable.  I think also of those who gave their time freely to help produce the current, version 3, of the ANF etc. 

One measure I have taken is to remove a couple of items from the Additional Fathers whose copyright status is profoundly unclear, since they were published in Egypt at a time when that country had no copyright law at all. After all, I don’t want to get a threatening letter in a few years time demanding money.   Who benefits from this, tho, I don’t know.  Sic transit gloria mundi.

Update 21/8/7:Harry has intervened, and the threat has gone away for now. Only the version 3 files and their derivatives are claimed to be in copyright; and that only so that there is a revenue stream from commercial publishers to keep the site alive after he moves on or retires or whatever. I’m still discussing this with the CCEL.

9 Responses to “Death of the CCEL?”


  1. voxstefani

    If this isn’t all a hoax, it’s really a crying shame! I do wonder, though: after all, your work is in CCEL itself, complete with links to your Tertullian project page.

    But if it all turns out to be true, then surely loud protestations could be made to Calvin College, the host institution?

  2. Roger Pearse

    A good thought. Yes, it is strange, isn’t it? Clearly whoever wrote to me didn’t know about that, although I hope that will continue, regardless — my purpose is to promote access, not to make money. CD’s with the Fathers on are two a penny, and mine only sold one copy this month — hardly a money-spinner!

    But that this could happen is a warning to us all, that the internet is no longer the free and easy place it was in 1997. At CCEL I would guess that Harry Plantinga has pretty much handed over running to the next generation. So we have someone acting in good faith who didn’t actually scan any of the stuff, and doesn’t know how it happened, but determined to fulfil his trust to defend the site, as he understands it. This must happen more in years to come, as sites become more mature.

    Also I have long felt that it could only be a matter of time before book publishers started to do what music publishers have done, and aggressively assert their control of material online. At that point there will be a massacre of online sites, given the mess that copyright laws are in.

    I try very hard to comply with US copyright law, which is where I publish, but it is sometimes difficult for the amateur to know what that law actually states. The situation is no better in Europe. Worse it is more extensive and contradicts US law, so that (ghastly situation) stuff that is out of copyright in the US can sometimes be in copyright for decades to come in the UK.

    As I blogged elsewhere, this situation is actively stifling the internet in Germany. It could do a lot of damage to us too.

  3. Loutzenhiser

    Actually I am aware of the additional files that Pearse is storing on the CCEL site. I was not trying to be rude. I was shocked that he was using the CCEL site to sell his product. seemed rather low handed to me. And yes there is the question of digital copyright. I understand that you are not getting rich on the sales but there is the question of what is right here. The files that he is selling are entirely free on the site and his CD is in competition with the CCEL cd. Please tell me what is right and proper here?

  4. Larry Swain

    Not really. Open Source doesn’t mean that you can profit from someone else’s open source. I suspect that selling the CD is the issue, even if you are only recouping your costs for the CD.

  5. Loutzenhiser

    Actually I think that the issue is getting resolved to everyones satisfaction. I would love to see the Additional church Fathers in PDF format as that is the file type I prefer to use. Seems that Harry Plantinga agreed to the mirroring but forgot to tell the staff what was agreed to so when I found the files on our server I assumed the worst. I did not know that the files in question belonged to Roger and I have apologized to him for the misunderstanding.

  6. Kevin P. Edgecomb

    Loutzenhiser, if Roger Pearse’s CD were identical to your own, with no added value (i.e., his other collected translations), you might be able to claim something. As it is, the products are different, and he incorporates only a public domain edition of your Early Church Fathers. In addition, you will find, with research, that others have asked to link to or store on the CCEL site those translations that Roger has provided. Quid pro quo. If he’s doing wrong, so are you.

  7. voxstefani

    Amen, Kevin.

  8. Roger Pearse

    Thanks for your note Loutzenhiser — it is appreciated. Incidentally I think the mirroring software must have stopped — the last update you have to the Additional files is February. If you look at http://www.tertullian.org/fathers, you will see that I’ve been busy since.

    Thank you for your support, Kevin. I too had presumed that the v2 files were public domain, and indeed Harry thinks so too; but it was very scary to suddenly get it questioned, and I spent a very uncomfortable weekend.

    I’ve asked for a clear statement from the CCEL as ‘owners’ that these *are* public domain — in case some lawyer finds a way to exercise some copyright somehow –, since otherwise many people will be affected as copies have wandered around the web for years.

    The longer term issue — watching a champion of PD imposing copyright on the v3 files — is still outstanding. But I understand Harry Plantinga’s desire to keep the site online when he retires, and thus the need for some kind of revenue flow. Not that I would go down that path myself, but I do understand why he has done so. CCEL is a much bigger site than mine, and much more important.

    I think we all need to remember that there is no real money in all this. I only did a CD because someone asked for it, and I felt that, after all, why not get more copies of the files in circulation. Indeed even now it’s the only way to get my files on CD. But I placed my files and my contributions in the public domain explicitly, and said so at the bottom of every page.

  9. Roger Pearse

    Once we have a next generation of people running websites, they aren’t bad people; but as they don’t have the background, only the imperative to protect, this will change the way that these sites are run. This will tend to cause problems of this kind.

    It’s rather like manuscript collections. The people who collected them are focused on the collections being useful. But those who succeed them are quite capable to locking them all away “for safety”. Cardinal Bessarion gave his library to Venice, and it promptly became inaccessible to scholars for 50 years. The British Library manuscripts are effectively kept offline, yet a century ago researchers were even allowed to pour chemicals on them to bring up palimpsests!