There has been much debate about the AA World Services policy on litigation and much has been written, and said, about that policy. I would like to examine the policy, and the reasons given by AA World Services, and endorsed by the General Service Board, for the necessity of that policy. AA World Services and the General Service Board claim that they have a fiduciary responsibility to protect the SPIRITUAL ASSETS of Alcoholics Anonymous, and must protect the INTEGRITY of our message. In my dictionary fiduciary is defined as "held or holding in trust for another". It would appear that, in this case, the protection of literature is taking precedence over the preservation of our spiritual legacy. It should be pointed out that the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous has been in the public domain in this country for better than thirty years and no one has ever attempted to change the message it carries nor, with the exception of AA World Services, to make a profit from it. The members of AA [in Mexico] who have engaged in printing and distributing the Big Book, for sale at actual production cost, have done so because they felt that they had a legitimate complaint with AA World Services over pricing, and other matters. However, their complaints were ignored, or dismissed out of hand. Had these complaints been addressed by the General Service Board, or the General Service Conference, as provided for in the Concepts, we would probably have had no problem concerning our literature.
First a little history. In 1993, following the disastrous legal action by AA World Services , the result of which we lost the use of the circle and triangle as an AA symbol, the General Service Conference formed an Ad Hoc Committee to look into how best to protect our trademarks and copyrights and stay within the Traditions. This Committee was to report back to the 1994 Conference with their recommendations. The Committee met and, unable to come to a consensus within that Committee, reported back to the Conference with a recommendation that the Conference allow the entire Fellowship to discuss the issue for a period of two years, and thus arrive at an informed opinion of what measures should be taken in matters of protecting the trademarks and copyrights. In the meantime, AA World Services formulated what they called a "new" policy concerning litigation. That policy, to paraphrase, was that AA World Services would enter into litigation only after all other avenues had been exhausted. A "Floor Action" was introduced asking the Conference to accept the "new" AA World Services policy on litigation, and the Committee recommendation. This "Floor Action" was voted on by the 1994 Conference and was rejected by a vote of 80 some odd opposed and 30 some odd in favor. In spite of the better than two-thirds rejection by the Conference, the "new" AA World Services policy on litigation is still in effect. The following year, 1995, the request of an AA Area to place the issue of litigation on the Conference was denied by the Trustees Committee. However, a "Floor Action" was introduced asking the Conference to consider this issue. It was brought to the Conference floor late in the afternoon of the last day that Conference business was considered. The Conference voted "not to consider". This was the first time, ever, a Conference had refused to consider a "Floor Action" introduced while in session. Since that time two other Areas have proposed this issue as a Conference Agenda item and both times the request was denied by the Trustees Committee. Despite claims to the contrary, this issue has never been placed on the Conference Agenda for active consideration by the Fellowship.
The disturbing element in this affair is that the Conference Charter designates the General Service Conference as the "guardian" of world services and of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous in Section One of that Charter. Section Three of the Charter states, "The Conference will act for AA in the perpetuation and guidance of its world services, and it will also be the vehicle by which the AA movement can express its view upon all matters of vital AA policy and all hazardous deviations from AA Tradition." The whole argument of the minority is that litigation is a violation of the Traditions, and yet the Conference refuses to accept their responsibility in this matter. In Concept Twelve, Warranty Five states, in part, "To the minds of some AA's, "guardianship" of the AA Traditions implies the right and the duty on the part of the Conference to publicly punish or sue every willful violator. But we could not adopt a worse policy; indeed such aggressive public acts would place the Conference in the position of having violated one AA Tradition in order to defend another. Therefore aggressive or punitive action, even in this area, must be omitted."
In the present litigation, pursued in Germany, the asset supposedly being protected is the Big Book, or the so-called "official" German translation of that book. Their claim is that a translation that has been printed and distributed by an AA group, free of charge, was not "officially approved" by AA World Services in New York and, since it did not have that approval, would very possibly distort, or compromise, the "integrity" of our message. According to a source in Germany, there are already three very different "official versions" of 1962, 1974 and 1983, and the new translation of 1996 is closer to the original than all of those three. Many letters were written to the German and New York General Service Offices for correction of mistakes in the "official versions". Others had been submitted earlier. They were discussed and considered at the General Services Offices and with the literature committee. The result was, that they more or less reluctantly agreed, that their (the "official") translation is not close to the original in all points. But they said, they would not change anything. Other reasons given were:
- we cannot change a single word before the General Service Conference discussed and agreed. (NOTE: Translations of the Big Book in foreign languages are not approved by the US/Canada General Service Conference. Lack of expertise of these languages puts such approval beyond the scope of this Conference.) - we have still 3000 books on stock and must first sell out - the current book is so nicely designed (hardcover + dust jacket), we need it exactly the way it is to keep up our reputation. - there is too much religious things in the English text, this would block German newcomers and we cannot do that. - committee members had done good work and they would not criticize them or challenge their reputation in any way.
It is entirely possible that the "new" translation is a superior product. Instead of working with that group to resolve their differences, the German General Service Office, encouraged by AA World Services, is pursuing legal action against that group. They [AAWS Inc.] have singled out one individual with the apparent intent to destroy that individual both financially and as an effective member of AA. The latter because, as a condition to settle the lawsuit, that individual must agree to never again purchase, or give away, any AA literature including but not limited to the big book. The rest of the group remain in a kind of limbo with charges neither dismissed nor pursued. While the population in North America is around 220 million people we have approximately 4 or 5 million alcoholics here. Since 1939 we have sold a total of 15 million Big Books and we now sell 800,000 to 1,000,000 a year. There is a German speaking population of about 100 or 120 million in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, North Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium, Denmark, Poland and Russia. Among professionals there, they talk about 2 to 6 million German alcoholics, depending on the definition of the disease. In 1978 when AA was 43 years old we had more than 30,000 groups with an estimated membership over 600,000. The German Fellowship is now also 43 years old but they have only about 2000 groups and only about 20,000 members. Within the last decade only 4000 German Big Books were sold a year.
If the Trustees (General Service Board members) continue to ignore, or disregard, the "minority opinion" our current problems will multiply. A full and open discussion of all controversial subjects is the only way to avoid disunity within our ranks. The process of the "Group Conscience" was designed to resolve problems as they occur. This process is currently being manipulated and, by doing so, is defeating the purpose for which it was designed. The Trustees are not solely to blame for this situation. The Delegates share equal responsibility for abandoning their role as "guardians", as the majority members of the General Service Conference. Warranty Five states, "Because our General Service Conference represents us all, this body is especially charged with the duty of setting the highest possible standard with respect to these attitudes of no punishments and no public controversy. The Conference will have to do more than just represent these principles; it will frequently have to apply them to specific situations.. And, at times, the Conference will need to take certain protective actions, especially in the area of Tradition violations". Yet the Trustees refuse to allow a place on the Conference Agenda for discussion and a vote on this matter. Likewise, the Conference refuses to consider any "Floor Actions" introduced by the minority proposing a full Conference discussion.
All of our Alcoholics Anonymous Boards are legal corporations but, they are unlike any comparable corporate boards. The by-laws of the General Service Board state that the Board has but one purpose, that of serving the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. They further state that "all of their deliberations and decisions shall be guided by the Twelve Traditions and they shall use their best efforts to insure that these Twelve Traditions be maintained and it shall not itself nor, so far as it is within its power so to do, permit others to modify, alter, or amplify these Traditions except in keeping with the provisions of the Charter" (The General Service Conference Charter). In that Conference Charter, Section 10, Paragraph 4 states, and I quote: "Except for decisions upon matters of policy, finance or AA Tradition, liable to seriously affect AA as a whole, the General Service Board has entire freedom of action in the routine conduct of the policy and business affairs of the AA. general headquarters". In that same Section, the final paragraph: "Except in great emergency, neither the General Service Board nor any of its related services ought ever take any action liable to greatly affect AA as a whole, without first consulting the Conference". This matter was considered so important that, in order to emphasize it, it was stated not once, but twice.
A past Chairman of the General Service Board expressed a concern about the apparent "spiritual erosion" in AA. In my humble opinion, that erosion is directly attributable to a hardened opposition of our service boards to any objections taken to policies they consider good business decisions. In some circles this is called "protecting our territory". Many people have tried to point out to them that AA was never intended to be a business in the normal sense of that word. Our PRIMARY PURPOSE is described more than adequately in our Fifth Tradition "Each AA group ought to be a SPIRITUAL ENTITY having but one primary purpose--that of carrying its message to the alcoholic who still suffers". Any other activity, including the publishing of our literature, is to support our endeavors in this primary purpose. The intent of the early AA's who adopted the Warranties is made clear by the following quote: "We have no doctrine that has to be maintained. We have no membership that has to be enlarged. We have no authority that has to be supported. We have no prestige, power, or pride that has to be satisfied. And we have no property or money that is really worth quarreling about".
All arguments I have heard in support of litigation is based on inducing fear. I don't know how many times I have heard fearful statements about "we may lose the rights to our literature forever if we don't protect it by legal means". The truth of the matter is our literature is of no use to anyone else, except to help an alcoholic recover. Our literature concerns alcoholism only and is useful only for that purpose. Treatment centers hand these books and pamphlets out by the truckloads, yet those same treatment centers are not very successful without AA support and participation. Anyone in this country can produce and distribute our Big Book without fear of penalty because it resides in the public domain. Have you ever wondered why no one does? Because there is no profit to be gained from it. We have been told since the beginnings of AA that the only way we can keep our sobriety is to give it away. Now it seems our main concern is that someone is going to steal it. How many books could we have given away with the money that has been spent on legal activity? Our philosophy of open, generous giving has evolved into jealous, protective combativeness. How long are we going to operate in this manner? It, dear reader, depends on you.
Jesse L., Past A.A. General Service Conference Delegate, Panel 44 (1994-1995)