Below is the response written by a group member to someone who reached out to us with her concerns regarding our group website.
Thank you for taking the time to express your concerns, but you need not worry that either copyright law or Tradition Four are being violated by our website.
Let’s deal with Tradition Four first: “Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.” If our website claimed that the Agnostic Twelve Steps were the original Twelve Steps of AA, or were approved by AA in any way, or promoted the idea that the original Twelve Steps should be replaced by the Agnostic Twelve Steps, it might be possible to make a case that we are affecting AA as a whole, at least in the minds of some part of the public. However, we do not do any of those things. In fact, we state that these are an alternative interpretation of the Twelve Steps that some of our members have found useful.
There is a long history of groups and individuals having a right to their own versions. These versions are not meant to replace the original Twelve Steps, but are solely for the use of the group, based on the group conscience, or the individual. Bill Wilson supported that practice. In fact, in 1957, when told that some Buddhists wanted to start AA groups but felt the need to change the word “God” in the Steps to “good”, in keeping with their religious beliefs, Bill wrote:
To some of us, the idea of substituting “good” for “God” in the Twelve Steps will seem like a watering down of AA’s message. We must remember that AA’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership among us. This liberty has made AA available to thousands who never would have tried at all, had we insisted on the Twelve Steps just as written.
Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Page 81, 1957
Given that our membership in 1957 was around 150 thousand, Bill was saying that a substantial portion of our membership had gotten sober only because they were given the freedom to try their own interpretation of the program. This is especially true for people with non-traditional, non-Christian or no religious beliefs.
In so far as “reprinting AA 12 steps for Agnostics and rewriting the steps, […could cause us to…] lose your right to be called an AA Group”, I am happy to be able to let you know that this is not true. “Any gathering of two or more alcoholics who wish to recover and have no other affiliation may call themselves an A.A. group.” (“The A.A. Group”, AAWS pamphlet) That there is no requirement to use the Steps as originally written in order to be an AA group was decided by GSO after the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup tried to kick out two agnostic groups for just this reason a few years ago. (GTAI was willing to have AA be legally declared a religion in Canada in order to kick out two agnostic groups. Talk about affecting AA as a whole!) You can read more about that here:
Finally, to the issue of copyright law: I am not a lawyer, but to the best of my knowledge, there is no difference between copyright of digital material and copyright of physical material. (This may have changed in the years since I was active in publishing the local newsletter, etc.) You are right that AAWS lost the copyright on the first 164 pages of the Big Book, but retains, as far as I know, the copyrights for all our other material. However, copyright does not apply to ideas, methods or systems. So, I could copyright the exact wording of a recipe, for example, but I cannot copyright the list of ingredients or the list of instructions. Same thing applies to the Steps: I can copyright the wording of the Steps, but I cannot copyright the method of the Steps or their formatting as a list of 12 steps. Since the wording of the Agnostic Steps is, as you point out, different from the original, the ownership of the copyright of the original Steps does not apply to them. You might also want to look into the concept of “fair use”.
Where our website does use or quote from actual AA material, we operate under the AA guidelines as expressed in the “A.A. Service Manual”:
“Local A.A. publications are permitted to reprint the Steps, Traditions, and/or the Concepts, and to quote a phrase, sentence or brief paragraph excerpted from A.A. literature such as the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, The A.A. Service Manual and Conference-approved pamphlets without a prior, written request to do so. When this occurs, the proper credit line should be included to ensure that the copyrights of A.A. literature are protected. After a quotation from a book or pamphlet, the credit line should read: Reprinted from (name of publication, page number), with permission of A.A. World Services, Inc.”
I hope this eases your concerns. If there are any other questions that I can help you with, please feel free to email us again. Perhaps you can join us on-line one night?
In any case, thank you again for your concern and enthusiasm for freethinker groups,