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This article {written December 30, 2007} is a bit simplified, but could be used as a primer for discussing such a topic rationally and fruitfully. The inspiration of writing this essay is the debate over the publicizing of written materials used in an LGAT (Large Group Awareness Training) seminar by someone outside the organization / individual who owns the copyright to those materials. The motivation claimed by they who made the materials public is that people have a right to know what they are getting into before they pay for a course, and assume that it will protect people from being coerced into something they would not have wanted to otherwise. There is also the element of depriving the owner of income derived in part from such materials. Other considerations, such as the claim used by some religious or quasi-religious groups that upper level “secrets” are their religious right, will not be addressed here.

Basic Ethical Considerations

Like any ethical situation, every factor can play a role in determining the right and wrong in a situation. Specific acts are not wrong, but the circumstances make it so. Killing someone in self-defense or accidentally or unknowingly is different from killing in war and is different from murder. If you don’t understand the obviousness of this statement, then studying and discussing ethics isn’t for you. Right to the fruits of one’s intellectual property is no exception, and is neither inalienable nor absolute.

What are some of the factors surrounding the making of another’s copyright materials public? Two come to mind right away: intention and consequence. Intention does not necessarily change the consequences of the action, but it can make it more or less justifiable depending on point of view. That is why there are rarely one-sided answers in ethics, but a set of sometimes contradictory understandings that must be weighed against each other, sometimes even arbitrarily.

In the case of “secret” upper level practices of an organization or company, these cannot be copyrighted. However, the FORM of the ideas, i.e. a written manual or book, CAN be copyrighted in United States law. The case for doing so is in principle to protect trade secrets with the assumption they have trade value. The possible negative consequence of making such words public is the decrease in sellability by the work’s owner due to alternate availability. However, unless the process underlying the expression is patented (if even possible or defensible), the ideas can be disseminated legally and cause the same effect. The origin — even if borrowed entirely from other sources — is irrelevant to the copyright so long as the expression of the ideas is original.

Also there is the question if the work itself has market value. If it is part of a course, the question is whether people are paying for a course experience or for the written materials. Conversely, a person has the right to know — and the company an obligation to provide — reasonably detailed information on the content of the course. One way of doing this is to make the written expression of it public, and by default is a decision for the owner to make and take the ethical responsibility for. If someone other than the owner makes it public, there must be a reason.

Reasons for Exposure

There are justifiable reasons for publishing the copyrighted works of others. The three that come to mind is proof, journalism, and warning.

The first reason is to use a work as proof of itself. In other words, if one argues that certain statements were / are being made, and there is a challenge, the work must be provided and quoted. However, this assumes a challenge and limiting the quoting of the work to the necessity of proof, and only in some cases would the whole work be necessary to provide context.

The second is to publish necessary portions of a work for journalistic integrity, but not necessarily more than a few snippets and a summary UNLESS a challenge is expected or given as to being quoted in context.

The third reason is to publish a work is if by its nature reveals something of sufficient potential harm to someone. A simpler way to describe this is “consumer awareness”. For example this could mean written statements that are evidence of the nature of an organization that is hidden from the public, and in particular would affect their relationship with the organization if they knew beforehand. People have a right to know who they are doing business with and what they are getting themselves into, and this is why cults very often have hidden beliefs and practices above and beyond the motive of mysticism for the sake of marketing. This reason is especially important if the relationship between an organization and its consumers / adherents is manipulative to the extent that nothing short of total disclosure (if that) would make them believe the nature of the organization.

Another Consideration

The ethical question of intention versus consequence is noteworthy. A person may publicize another’s works with the intention of hurting their business with malice and forethought, while another may deem the information journalistically noteworthy or even necessary for consumers’ free will (real choice due to more knowledge), yet the action and consequence is the same.

In the end, it is a balance between the right of a person to the rewards of their works and the right of the public and/or the consumer to know. If the work is simply an expression of an individual to be sold by itself, such as a work of art or writing, then the latter rights are minimal or non-existent. If the work is part of a program sold to consumers — especially if its nature is potentially harmful such as in quasi-psychology alternative therapies (unproven by professional review or independent clinical studies), then the latter has much more weight.


When publicizing another’s work without their consent, there are inevitably disparate views on the ethicality of such acts. For it to be just, there must be a cause and/or consequence that outweighs the rights of intellectual property, regardless of other intentions.