BIRMINGHAM, AL – A pastor in a regional church who has found nearby churches copying his method of worship wants them stopped, and has unleashed a storm of controversy over the following legal battle – one which has invoked federal copyright law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and even patent law.
James Keppelmeyer is the pastor at Lake Valley Baptist Church, where he has been conducting his small community oriented services since 1977. In that time he says he has changed the way the community relates to the church.
“We’ve had people coming here you wouldn’t ever have considered churchgoers ten, even five years ago” Keppelmeyer says. “I put this down to hard work by myself and the community. Once you get the right process in place, there’s nothing you can’t do.”
However four years ago parishioners Sarah & Kevin Salter moved away from the area into the city, and due to the distances involved changed to a different church.
“We told them we’d miss them, and understood they needed to worship close to their new home within their own community” says Keppelmeyer. “They went on their way and we wished them the best of luck. Life is ever changing and that ongoing growth is what moved the Salters away from us.”
Upon meeting with the Salters in later years however, Keppelmeyer’s suspicions were aroused when Sarah mentioned the new church was “just like the old.”
They too had a community of parishioners who met on a Sunday. They mentioned the same bible readings, community support – even bake sales and an inspirational pastor who captivated his audiences.
“That’s when I first realised something was amiss,” Keppelmeyer claims, “but I never imagined what thievery I’d discover.”
He decided to investigate further, and over a period of three more Sundays in early 2003 sent followers loyal to himself into the newer Greenside Baptist Church to record their services. Now armed with video and audio evidence, he discovered they were conducting ceremonies almost identical to his own.
“The sermons, the hymns, even the layout of the building. I was stunned. it was as if I was in my own church. I felt like my heart had been torn from my chest.” With this revelation Keppelmeyer contacted his attorney and sent a cease & desist letter to Greenside.
Keppelmeyer based his claims on infringement of copyright law, but the pastor in the rival church hit back. Dr. Ray Seppelt, pastor at Greenside claims he first attempted discussions with Keppelmeyer, but “Trying to talk sense into the man proved fruitless” he said, and decided to fight fire with fire in July 2003.
Eighty four year old Seppelt claims that while his church is indeed newer than Keppelmeyer’s, he has been in the ministry far longer, having been performing Christ’s work since 1951. Not only was Keppelmeyer infringing on his own copyrighted services, Seppelt claims, but he had done so contrary to the DMCA.
“We are a community of open, honest people. That’s how we work. Br. Keppelmeyer has sneaked in, using lies and the cover of proprietary deception to record how we work.”
Seppelt believes this form of reverse engineering of his services falls under the protection of the DMCA, and is sure a reasonable court will agree with him.
The division between the two churches has escalated over the last 18 months, and looks to step up beyond a simple copyright dispute with Keppelmeyer’s latest move.
Keppelmeyer has applied for a patent on the concept & method of worship. While he promises convenient licensing terms to most churches, these licenses come at a cost, and churches must sign declarations that they will not copy his “unique combination of community spirit, sermon methods and family involvement.”
Keppelmeyer has already stated he will not be licensing his worship model to Seppelt and the Greenside Baptist Church.
Investigations into the validity of Keppelmeyer’s patent application are ongoing, but are expected to come up against challenges of prior art by local rabbi Neville Schoenberg.