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NHNE Special Report:
Tuesday, February 22, 2000

D. Patrick Miller's Course Controversy Overview


& Consumer Protection
for Spiritual Seekers"


NHNE Follow-Up:
D. Patrick Miller's Course Controversy Overview
Tuesday, February 22, 2000


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Hello Everyone!

Here's yet another article concerning the ongoing Course in Miracles drama. Written by D. Patrick Miller, who is also the author of "The Complete Story of the Course: The History, the People, and the Controversies Behind a Course in Miracles" (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=0965680908/newheavenneweartA/), this is the best overview of the situation I have seen.

With Love & Best Wishes,
David Sunfellow


By D. Patrick Miller for The Holy Encounter


As Helen Schucman and Bill Thetford labored at the secret task of recording and transcribing A Course in Miracles [ACIM] from 1965 to 1972, they were not sure of its ultimate purpose. At first they assumed the Course was a private and prolific answer to Thetford's heartfelt plea for "another way" to communicate than the habitual bickering of the two Columbia University psychology professors. By the time the massive manuscript was completed, it had been shown only to a few intimates -- including Hugh Lynn Cayce, son of the famed psychic channel Edgar Cayce.

Cayce was given a draft manuscript of the Course that would eventually reside in the library of the Association for Research and Enlightenment in Virginia Beach. It was the "Hugh Lynn Cayce version" [HLC] of ACIM that was shared with Kenneth Wapnick, Ph.D., a Jewish-born psychologist who had converted to Catholicism and was planning to live as a monk in Galilee before he encountered the Course in 1972. "It did not take me very long to realize," Wapnick has recounted, "that A Course in Miracles was my life's work, Helen and Bill were my spiritual family, and that I was not to become a monk but to remain in New York with them instead."

Five Thousand Close Friends

Had it been left up to Schucman, Thetford, and Wapnick, the Course might never have progressed beyond a bulky, photocopied manuscript shared gingerly with their confidants. The "socialization" of the Course began with the arrival of Judith Skutch, a continuing education instructor at New York University and a gregarious networker in New Age and parapsychology circles. Bill Thetford once joked that Judy Skutch introduced ACIM's inner circle to "five thousand of her closest friends."

Skutch also arranged the photocopying and dissemination of several hundred copies of ACIM before it was printed in book form. In 1975 a copyright for the work was procured in the name of "(Anonymous) Helen Schucman" -- reflecting Schucman's unease in being cited as the author of material that she felt she had only transmitted. Schucman, Thetford, Wapnick and Skutch formed the core of the Foundation for Inner Peace [FIP], the nonprofit Course publisher. (A few years later Wapnick would found the closely allied Foundation for A Course in Miracles [FACIM] as a nonprofit educational institute.) By June 22, 1976, the first five thousand sets of the original 3-volume hardcover edition of A Course in Miracles were made available for sale.

A Return of Royalties

There were no major disputes involving use of the ACIM text or title until the hugely successful launch of Marianne Williamson's first book A Return to Love in 1992. While the first edition of Return clearly identified the Course as the source of Williamson's inspiration, the text did not clearly identify ACIM excerpts. Thus, readers not already familiar with the language of ACIM could have easily mistaken Williamson as the source of the Course quotes within her book. FIP complained to the publisher and an agreement was reached that included the payment of some royalties to FIP and the full citation of ACIM quotes in future editions of A Return to Love.

Endeavor Follows Suit with Suit

Another copyright dispute was brewing in the early 1990s. The New Christian Church of Full Endeavor in southern Wisconsin (popularly known by the name of its educational branch, Endeavor Academy) began printing small booklets consisting mostly of Course excerpts without permission from FIP. The Foundation complained repeatedly to the Church without result, but took no formal action until 1996.

That was the year FIP granted a five-year publishing license to Viking Penguin (now Penguin Putnam), and soon thereafter Viking and FIP jointly sued Endeavor for copyright infringement. Endeavor promptly answered with a counter-suit charging that the original copyright was invalid and procured on fraudulent grounds, since it named Helen Schucman and not Jesus Christ as the author. The case soon became bogged down in motions and counter-motions between the two parties, a situation that persists today.

Figuring the Percentage

The Endeavor suit and counter-suit revolve mostly around US copyright law, but other Course organizations were troubled by FIP's progressively tightening copyright policy. By 1994 that policy included the provision that any book written about the Course could not use ACIM excerpts for more than 5% of its word count. The limitation did not seem to apply to Ken Wapnick's books (for instance, his title A Vast Illusion relies on ACIM for as much as 20% of its word count, according to my analysis). While there are no precise legal standards for what constitutes the "fair use" of copyrighted material,  many authors in the Course field believe there should be a quotations policy that is more liberal than the standard practice in publishing.

A Surprising Switch

Outside the two foundations that have been ACIM's legal guardians, no one was prepared for the March 1999 announcement that ownership of the copyright and trademarks had been abruptly transferred from FIP to FACIM. Following the change, there were modifications in policy as well as the way it was effected. For instance, the 5% quotation rule was apparently abandoned in favor of a requirement that virtually every kind of media making any use of the Course, however minor, was to be submitted to FACIM for approval.

FACIM also began issuing letters to a wide variety of Course organizations, authors, and webmasters who made use of Course text or the trademarked terms "ACIM" and A Course in Miracles in their media. Among those who received letters requesting that they amend or cease their usage of Course text and trademarks were such veteran teachers and writers as Jon Mundy of the Interfaith Fellowship in New York, the Rev. Tony Ponticello of Community Miracles Center in San Francisco, and Robert Perry of the Circle of Atonement [COA] in Sedona, Arizona. Since these organizations had been accustomed to using Course material under the purview of FIP's policy, they were startled to receive FACIM's non-negotiable demands.

Permission Delayed, Then Denied

Robert Perry was also denied permission to use excerpts of the Course in a major book of commentary. According to the author, the manuscript uses the Course for about 15% of its word count. The project was submitted to FIP for approval a year before the transfer of the copyright. FIP never issued a decision on the manuscript, but Wapnick denied permission without citing specific causes only a few days after FACIM assumed the copyright. That denial was soon followed  with a "cease and desist" letter from FACIM's attorneys demanding that Perry stop distributing virtually all the COA literature that made use of Course text for lesson commentaries, essays, and other teaching material. These materials had long been the subject of both conflict and negotiation with FIP, but the original copyright holder had never taken a specific legal action against COA.

Concluding that FACIM's order could not be followed without  shutting down his organization, Perry filed a legal motion calling for a judge to "to establish the right of COA to fairly use A Course in Miracles and other related works in its publications." While not asking for damages, Perry's motion did call for the cancellation of  the Course copyright and trademarks. FACIM's answer was uncompromising. In a counterclaim the Foundation cited 52 infringing works published by COA, and asked for damages ranging from $1 million to $5 million. In a statement issued just before this publication's presstime, FACIM explained that, "in cases of copyright infringement, the plaintiff must assert a request for damages in the complaint."

The HLC Version Surfaces -- and Resurfaces

By mid-1999 FACIM's actions had sparked a veritable firestorm of comment and controversy on the Internet, where ACIM has always had a significant presence. Attorney Tom Whitmore posted a website devoted entirely to the copyright controversy. Ryan Rothgeb, who uses the online name "Amminadab," made large portions of the Course available on his website on AmericaOnline and was sued for infringement in July. This action constitutes the third lawsuit that FACIM is currently pursuing in defense of the ACIM copyright and trademarks.

By the end of last year several websites began making an alternate version of ACIM available. Purported to be a faithful transcription of the early "Hugh Lynn Cayce version" of the Course, the text varies from the standard ACIM chiefly in the first five chapters. The webmasters making it available have put forth various arguments for the HLC version's exemption from copyright -- including the fact that several hundred photocopies were circulated without copyright notice before publication of the standard Course.

FACIM began issuing cease-and-desist letters every time the HLC version appeared on the Web, resulting in a legal cat-and-mouse game as the bootleg version of ACIM disappeared from one location only to appear within days at another. In response to the furor, Ken Wapnick issued a brief commentary on the HLC manuscript in late January of this year. Describing the HLC as an "incompletely edited combination of the notebooks, Urtext, Helen's first retyping, and the first complete draft," Wapnick recounted that the manuscript had been given to Cayce for comment only, with the understanding that it would not be shown to the general public. He also claimed copyright protection for the material under a 1990 copyright taken out to cover all of Helen Schucman's unpublished writing, including successive working drafts of ACIM.

A No-Comment Policy

Throughout this controversy FACIM has consistently maintained that it is acting only in observation of its rights as the legitimate holder of the Course copyright and trademarks, and that its overall aim is to uphold the integrity of the original Course teaching. But many observers question the appropriateness of FACIM's recent legal actions on behalf of a  teaching that promotes the spiritual values of forgiveness and defenselessness. While FACIM has repeatedly asserted that it is not attempting to control either public discussion or published commentary on the Course, many veteran ACIM activists find it difficult to reconcile these claims with FACIM's recent behavior.

FACIM's position is difficult to explore further because of its current no-comment policy. Citing the advice of legal counsel, Ken Wapnick has twice declined my request for an interview. Meanwhile, FACIM attorney Sanford J. Hodes has stated in correspondence appearing online that observers of the controversy might be surprised to learn that permission to quote the Course is granted to "almost all persons" who submit requests to FACIM.

When I asked Hodes to substantiate that assertion, FACIM provided the following information. Of 89 total requests for permissions made to FACIM, 51 have been granted and 16 are pending. The Foundation has approved about two-thirds of the requests involving books or articles, and about one-fourth of the requests involving lesser media such as greeting cards, bookmarks, and calendars. (In the latter category, one-third of the requests is pending.)

An Expert Assessment

For an impartial and informed assessment of the Course copyright controversy I turned to Los Angeles attorney Jonathan Kirsch, a copyright specialist who is familiar with the history of the Course and has also studied legal precedents involving spiritual or channeled teachings. Kirsch believes that challenges to the Course copyright based on the claim of spiritual authorship are likely to fail.

"The salient legal question is not whether FACIM, Endeavor Academy, or Course students generally believe in spiritual authorship of the Course," explains Kirsch. "The question is whether an impartial judge or jury will find that there was no trace of personal authorship [by Helen Schucman]. Given the reported facts of how the Course came to be, that sounds unlikely."

Kirsch also believes that the existing copyright is unlikely to be overturned on the basis of pre- copyright distribution of the HLC version. Under current law and existing precedents, he says "it would be a very drastic decision for a court to cause forfeiture of copyright simply because a few hundred copies of a publication were distributed without a notice back in the 70s."

On the broader issue of "fair use" of copyrighted material, Kirsch says it's a much tougher call. Since fair use standards are not specified in the law, the only way to defend a claim of fair use is to publish, get sued, and win. "If you've written a comprehensive commentary on ACIM," says Kirsch, "I think you're in a likely posture to successfully claim fair use -- even if you quote the Course a lot. The problem is that there is a threshold for fair use somewhere, and you can't know with precision beforehand whether you've crossed that threshold."

Kirsch concludes that "there is a sound argument that FACIM has the right and responsibility to protect individuals against defective or distorted versions of ACIM. What makes me uncomfortable is the idea that the Foundation would use the threat of litigation to intimidate an author or group for their earnestly held, personal beliefs about ACIM when they are otherwise observing copyright standards. But the fact is that the law does allow you to use copyright and trademark for those purposes if you wish."

Growing Pains?

While many Course students are deeply dismayed that their beloved teaching could become embroiled in such a bitter and litigious controversy, the current struggle over copyright can be seen as a form of inevitable "growing pains" for a spiritual movement that is still in its infancy by historical standards. However long it takes to heal wounded relationships, it's reasonable to assume that the legal resolution of this controversy will be haltingly hammered out somewhere in the middle between the two current extreme positions.

Those who want to see the Course entirely released from copyright protection are likely to be disappointed in court. But it seems unlikely that FACIM can maintain its current pace and style of policy enforcement unless Ken Wapnick decides to sacrifice his historical teaching function for a full-time career of making depositions and court appearances. The first serious fair use challenge to approach the courts is likely to result in a mediated settlement and a less restrictive (and hopefully more public) fair use policy.

In the short term, a useful meditation for everyone involved in the copyright controversy may be found in a simple question posed in Chapter 7 of the ACIM Text: "Do you prefer that you be right or happy?" If there was ever a situation that illustrates the impossibility of maintaining both states of mind simultaneously, it is the current dispute regarding the fair and proper use of A Course in Miracles.

D. Patrick Miller is the author of The Complete Story of the Course, A Little Book of Forgiveness, and The Book of Practical Faith (available from Miracle Distribution Center). To read the full text of Miller's "Rights and Miracles" interview with Jonathan Kirsch online, go to <http://www.fearlessbooks.com/FeatureLine11.html>. A photocopied version is available by sending your request and $1.00 to Miracle Distribution Center.

MiracleDistribution Center
1141 E. Ash Ave. Fullerton, CA 92831
(714) 738-8380 
Fax (714) 441-0618

The Continuing Story of the Course:

D. Patrick Miller's Fearless Press Website:


For more information on the Course controversy and other Course issues:

NHNE: SPECIAL REPORT: A Course In Controversy:






"Absence from Felicity: The Story of Helen
Schucman and Her Scribing of A Course in Miracles"
by Kenneth Wapnick:


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