Trisha Arlin says she isn’t willing to “turn the other cheek” after being wronged by two of Hollywood’s most powerful Christian producers, Roma Downey and Mark Burnett.
They have not apologized or given the rabbinical student credit or compensation after they allegedly used a prayer Arlin wrote, without permission, in the current NBC miniseries “A.D.: The Bible Continues.”
So it appears that this story of prominent producers ignoring copyright law and basic ethics is also one of a creative, if impoverished, David facing down a Hollywood Goliath in pursuit of proper credit.
“A.D.: The Bible Continues” is the latest in a run of productions created by Downey and Burnett, who are married. It debuted on Easter Sunday in front of 9.5 million viewers, and runs through June. Burnett also produces “Survivor,” “The Voice,” “Celebrity Apprentice” and “Shark Tank.”
Arlin, a liturgist and student at the pluralistic seminary Academy for Jewish Religion, was stunned to learn her prayer was part of the NBC miniseries. She learned her work had been used after being contacted by a Christian movie critic, who wanted to know where Arlin got a prayer that was recited in the show by the high priest, Caiaphas.
Six minutes into the fourth episode Caiaphas recites Arlin’s “Prayer for Compassion” — which she wrote at the height of last summer’s violence between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza and originally titled “A Prayer for Suffering” — as he walks among 10 half-dead Jews being crucified by Pontius Pilate.
What Arlin wrote was this:
“We pray for those of us/ Who are so angry/ That we have lost compassion for the suffering/ Of anyone who is not a member of our group./ And we pray for those of us/ Who cannot see the suffering/ behind the loss of that compassion.”
The Christian movie critic who alerted Arlin is Peter Chattaway, who cheerfully admits he’s obsessed with Bible movies. He sources the texts they quote for recaps he writes for websites and Christianity Today.
Usually hundreds of Bible sources pop up in his Google searches, Chattaway told the Forward in an interview from his home near Vancouver, British Columbia. But when he plugged in the lines recited by Caiaphas, the only result he got was the Jewish website Ritualwell, where the prayer appeared with Arlin’s name on it.
“I contacted her asking if it was hers or an older tradition. She said it was hers and away we went,” Chattaway said. Chattaway wrote a blog post, then tweeted about it, asking, “Did ‘AD: The Bible Continues’ plagiarize a modern prayer?” Then Arlin tweeted directly to the miniseries’ Twitter account, saying her prayer was “used without notice, attribution or payment.”
The usual audiences for her modern liturgy are “congregations, clergy, no money-making situations,” Arlin told the Forward. She wrote the prayer while serving as liturgist-in-residence at last summer’s National Havurah Committee summer retreat. Those who use her work “have to attribute it to me and make it clear if they’ve made changes and, if they share it, do so with credit so my attribution carries forward,” she said.
Prominently displayed along the right side of Arlin’s website is the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license requirement: “All original material copyright Trisha Arlin,” it says. “These prayers and intentions are written to be spoken out loud, during services, holidays and rituals. Please feel free to use them this way, as poetry or liturgy during services, as work available, under the Creative Commons free culture license CC-BY-SA, which require…. that anyone using or redistributing the work must share their derivative/copy with that same license and they must attribute my work to me and correctly indicate if necessary where it’s been modified.”
According to Arlin, Downey and Burnett, the executive producers of “AD: The Bible Continues,” “violated all of those” requirements. “They violated that license. They stole my piece,” she said.
Obtaining proper permissions was one of the first things she learned at Columbia University, where she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Screenwriting in 1997, Arlin said.
Soon after tweeting about the miniseries Arlin heard from two of its publicists. Once on the phone, they told her that they had a surprise. Suddenly Roma Downey’s unmistakable Irish lilt — familiar to millions from her role as Monica on “Touched by an Angel” — was on the other end of the line.
“She called to apologize, said she was very sorry, that she loved what she called my poem,” Arlin recalled. “I explained the Creative Commons SA license to Roma and then there was a long pause. She offered to tweet an explanation. That’s not enough for me. It’s some small acknowledgment but I want something in the miniseries’ credits… Frankly I think they owe me payment for my work. When I made noises about seeking redress, she said, ‘Well you can come after us if you want,’ as if they were the victims.”
Three publicists for “A.D.: The Bible Continues” and United Artists Media Group, which own a majority stake in Downey and Burnett’s production company, initially responded to a reporter’s email seeking comment from the producers. After being told more about the article’s subject, the publicists did not return messages.
“This isn’t a Jewish-Christian thing, even though the producers are overtly doing this as Christians,” said Arlin, who says she must take a hiatus from rabbinical school next year because she can’t afford tuition. “It’s a Hollywood-small writer thing.”
She hasn’t found a lawyer to represent her on it who is willing to work on contingency, Arlin said, and she can’t afford to hire one up front.
“I believe they are sorry, but I don’t think they get what they’ve actually done and their responsibility for it,” Arlin said. “In a world in which they are big time rich producers and their show was aired on NBC, their pockets are endless. I have no pockets.”
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a frequent contributor to the Forward.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is an award-winning journalist who covers philanthropy, religion, gender and other contemporary issues. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York magazine, among many other publications. She authored the book “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.”