Rightly handling the words

Andrew Malone raises some pertinent questions about how we treat the words of congregational songs.

Song words used to be fixed in our hymnbooks or on overhead transparencies. If you wanted to modernize “Thou o’er death hast won” or paraphrase how God is “ineffably sublime”, you had to petition your denomination for a whole new publication. Today, everyone can publish whatever and whenever they like. We cut and paste lyrics into pew bulletins and, increasingly, into the latest data projection package.

With this shift into self-publishing, we seem to have decided that all lyrics are public domain. At least, where I come from, if you don’t like the theology of something, you simply change the offending word or phrase as easily as you might change its font or colour. We want to be a little bit Hillsong, but baulk at singing to “the darling of heaven”. We adore the popular triumphalism of ‘In Christ Alone’, but are hesitant to commend its theology that on the cross “Glory died”. We subtly cross the line from being a publisher to being a co-writer with the professionals.

Pity that’s illegal. The CCLI agreement that permits reproduction of words does not extend to alteration. Clause 5.1 reinforces the Copyright Act: “The Church shall not alter the basic lyric, melody or fundamental character of any Song”. A quick check with CCLI confirms what “basic lyric” means. Churches may alter the age of pronouns (‘ye’↔‘you’) and their number (‘I’↔‘we’). But other changes, like those observed above, require the original author’s permission. We are, of course, talking about modern compositions that have not yet passed into the public domain. (This further reminds us that full and detailed attribution must be given for each song used.)

Although they differ in intrinsic authority, the lyrics of songs are as sacrosanct as the text of Scripture.

This raises many further questions. How scrupulous should we be in checking that our self-publications are correct? (Geoff Bullock often suffers from copyists misunderstanding his nuanced inflections; note the change when an ‘s’ is typically added to the anticipatory verbs in ‘All creation bow’ and ‘His kingdom come’. Not to mention Stuart Townend’s surname. Beware: internet versions are often already tainted.) Is it better or worse (or still illegal) to sing three-quarters of a song, but skip an offending verse? And what does it say about our sense of authority and our self-confidence when we unilaterally pronounce judgement on another’s attempt to capture our relationship with God? There’s been plenty of debate over how closely our Bible translations should follow the original author’s intent; why are we unconcerned to extend such charity and authority to the authors of words that attempt to respond to God and to each other?

Furthermore, there’s a whole new column just waiting to be written on how we alter the copyrighted music of songs. May we add or subtract bars between verses if our congregations can’t comply? Can we simplify some of that new-fangled syncopation? Could we tweak the melody to more intuitive intervals? It’s a tricky arena. But the words, at least, are supposedly inerrant.

30 thoughts on “Rightly handling the words

  1. And what does it say about our sense of authority and our self-confidence when we unilaterally pronounce judgement on another’s attempt to capture our relationship with God?

    Surely that’s what we ought to be doing? If the only alternative when faced with theology in a song that may be unhelpful to our congregation, for whatever reason, is to not sing the song, then that seems like a far greater act of ‘unilateral judgement’ than subtly changing lyrics to be more acceptable.

    But if the lyrics are wrong, or just crummy, then that seems like a right thing to do in leading & serving God’s people.

  2. If the only alternative when faced with theology in a song that may be unhelpful to our congregation, for whatever reason, is to not sing the song, then that seems like a far greater act of ‘unilateral judgement’ than subtly changing lyrics to be more acceptable.

    But it’s not the only alternative. You can always ask the author’s permission to change the lyrics. That gives the author the opportunity to learn what others perceive as a weakness in his or her lyrics, and shows due respect for the author’s copyright and for the skill that they put into crafting the words in the first place.

  3. I connot agree that song lyrics are as sacrosanct as Scripture.  The lyrics include their own interpretations of Scripture and I am free to disagree with those interpretations.  I would never presume to say my sermons are as sacrosanct as Scripture, even though I dare to believe that God speaks through me.

    In fact most preachers would feel free to disagree with the interpretative choices of their English translation at particular points.

    This discussion could end up quite complicated.  Is the copyright system appropriate for Christian ministry?  Are the assumptions of the secular copyright system the same as ours?  In what sense can a Christian claim to own the fruit of God’s gift that was given them to serve the congregation?  Should the pastor submit to the song writer’s teaching or the other way around? (ie Does the gift of musical ability trump the gift of teaching and five years of theological training?)

    I would want those questions answered before I felt compelled to refrain from countering some of the poor theology our song leaders want to foist upon us.

    But then I’m biased, I have yet to be convinced of the difference between CCLI and those roof repairers who also created their own market.

    Yours in hyoperbole,
    Michael Hutton

  4. Dear Michael, like it or not, we are under the obligation of the law of the land to respect copyright. Romans 13:1-2 is unambiguous.

    Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

    Your simple duty is to make yourself aware of the copyright law and to follow it. 

    What is more, we should no more expect to use a Christian musician’s work without fair recompense than we should expect a Christian plumber to unblock our drain for free. Romans 13:7 says

    Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.

    Our guest blogger, Andrew, has made some good suggestions about taking care in using other people’s lyrics. And Ian has given a good suggestion of seeking permission for an alteration to lyrics. And I know examples where such permission has been granted.

    And once you get used to the CCLI system, it is not so hard to use, although there is some administrative discipline called for.

    I think another issue is modernising old hymns (often to new tunes), where the words are long out of copyright and you can legally change lyrics (to update).

    But the pragmatic problem is that we get lots of local variations and the updates can vary greatly in lyrical quality and this can be a hiccup for portability between congregations.

  5. Michael, would you be happy for me to take a recording of one of your most carefully crafted sermons, and just go in and digitally change some key words or phrases I disagreed with or disliked (undetectably to the listener), and then make that version available to the public?

    I suspect not, because it would misrepresent you, and you’d be annoyed because you chose those words and phrases for good reason—to express yourself the way you wanted to be heard. Song lyrics are surely the same.

    For this reason, I wonder whether just because a song is out of copyright we should automatically think that we can fiddle with its meaning. I think perhaps out of respect for the original author we should think twice about doing that. We should see the copyright law as just a starting point for doing what is right. If our Christian ethics suggest we should do more, we should do more.

  6. Sandy,

    Forgive me if I sounded as if I was proposing lawlessness.  That I will not do.

    However, I think my objections remain, if I am permitted to rephrase them.

    <b>Sacrosanct.</b>  I do not believe the words of songs are holy in the same sense that Scripture is.  A legal word is needed to describe their inviolacy, not a theological one. I suspect that Andrew had his tongue in cheek at this and his last line, “inerrant”, I guess I rose to the bait.

    <b>Assumptions.</b>  I am saying that it is the place of the musician to ask, in what way is the copyright system appropriate for me to use, 1 Corinthians 6. A musician needs to reflect on the attitude with which they conduct their ministry/profession.  Have we just picked up a worldly system without asking whether it applies well to our situation?  Sandy, I believe you would actually have to make the case that these verses in Romans apply to internal church matters.  There is a jump from everyone must submit to governing authorites to Church procedures must follow secular procedures.  Romans 13:1-2 is unambiguous, but does it apply to how we employ pastors?  How we conduct a church meeting?  How we renumerate a musician.  I would argue that the administration of church music is an internal church matter <i>until</i> the musician introduces the secular copyright system as their preferred framework.  Once they have, we churches have no choice, it applies then.  But I do think musicians should think about whether they really want to do that.

    <b>Lawfulness and faithfulness.</b>  At the same time the song users do have to respect the law and refrain from taking advantage of the musicians serving them. I agree with all that, and we do that in our church, well, we thought we did.

    Andrew, thanks for an interesting article that will challenge many congregations who assumed or ‘had heard’ that it was OK to change the lyrics a little bit.  I suspect that for many, changing a few words was easier than telling the song leader not to choose that assinine song ever again.

    I would hope, however, that there won’t be a spate of prosecutions.  I note that many hymnbooks contain alternative versions and tunes from the earliest days, which suggests to me that word changing has always happened, and in fact might be a little unavoidable, and, in some circumstances, beneficial.

  7. I’m pleased that the topic has got people thinking and talking. I agree with Sam and Michael, that we want to subject the lyrics of songs (and even English translations of Scripture) to thoughtful scrutiny. The question is what to do when we disagree.

    Ian correctly offers one way forward: the CCLI arrangement does permit those who are concerned to explore how lyrics might be altered, without infringing the original author’s copyright.

    I should also note that Michael is quite right in recognising this as the pointy end of a bigger wedge. How does (and/or should) copyright work in Christian circles? When is a work of ministry public domain and when not? And when might a concern for godly remuneration cross the line into corporate greed? Consider the recent furore over a major Greek New Testament website which was shut down by the German Bible Society; who ‘owns’ the text of Scripture?! (See blog 1 and blog 2 for further information and [strong!] opinions.)

  8. Michael—yes I agree with you on the financial side. It is a question content generators need to ask: do I want to be part of the commercialization of my work, or am I happy to make it ‘public domain’ (like freeware vs shareware)? Do I need to receive compensation for this, or do I offer it as a gift to the church?

    But if they do put it in the public domain, they should still be able to reserve their right not to have their work changed without their permission.

  9. <But it’s not the only alternative. You can always ask the author’s permission to change the lyrics. That gives the author the opportunity to learn what others perceive as a weakness in his or her lyrics, and shows due respect for the author’s copyright and for the skill that they put into crafting the words in the first place.>

    Yes, that’s true, but I have to say I have found the vast majority of authors I have contacted have said ‘no’to such requests. When dealing with fellow reformed evangelicals there is some chance of a positive response, but more often than not lyrics with which we have difficulties betray very different theologies.
    I recall a few years ago a hillsong song had the line: ’ forever I’ll love you, forever I’ll stand’ and a church had amended that to read ‘forever you’ll love me and cause me to stand’.  I made some enquiries and discovered that the church had to pull this change as the author was not impressed with this change.  And in one sense, fair enough.  The author’s theological convictions were not reformed and and she would not allow the change because they were inconsistent with her own views. 

    We need more theologically sound and musically gifted lyricists and musicians to produce more material.  That’s the real issue in my opinion.

  10. That’s a very interesting example Philip. I guess the other benefit of asking for permission to change lyrics is that you might learn something about the songwriter’s theology. (And therefore whether you really want to financially support them in their songwriting by using their music. Hmm, this is ringing a bell for me for some reason wink

  11. This is starting to feel a bit adversarial, which was not my intention but…


    Suppose you took one of my hacked out sermons and made it good and edifying, what makes you think I wouldn’t say Hallelujah?

    Couldn’t a musician have the same attitude?  I dare to suggest that a song crafted to the best of a musicians ability might yet not be perfect.

    The issue you raise is surely only one of attribution.  You would be lying when you said, “By …”  But what would be wrong with saying “adapted from…”  Nothing ethically.

    Come on guys, don’t we do this all the time?

    Don’t preachers take stories and jokes and illustrations and with appropriate attribution adapt them to fit the message at hand?

    Don’t people take songs, quotes, famous lines, misheard lyrics and make them their own, all the time?

    Don’t we point out to the congregation why the NIV is a little weak in translation here at this verse?

    Ian, the gospel and my concern for the godliness of the church will trump my respect for the author all the time.  If there is an old poem, an old song, an old sermon paragraph that with a little tinkering will perfectly apply or illustrate a point, I will use it with thankfulness to God, indicating that it has been adapted, faithfully reproduced, or completely reworked at the stupid bit.  I’m not going to worry too much whether Winston Churchill would actually be upset or not that I gruffly intoned “Winston Churchill would say Never, Never.” as I tried to explain Paul’s Me Genoito just last Sunday. 

    Without collapsing into a complete anarchist I would ask, Ian, whether the copyright laws were written to reflect the reality of how intellectual property and public knowledge works or whether it was written, at least in part, to protect the interests of publishing companies and drug manufacturers etc.

    I’m not saying there aren’t ethical issues raised by the application of the law.  But I suggest that ethical issues are at the simple level of lying, cheating and stealing.

    Is it enough to ask, does this glorify God?  Now lying, cheating and stealing won’t but disrespecting some crusty old secularist or some crusty old hymn writer, with proper attribution, just might.

    Yours warmly, and hopefully not too stridently, Michael Hutton

  12. I always had mixed thoughts about the changing of the “forever I’ll love you forever I’ll stand”. I mean, we are commanded to love God and to stand firm, so is there really anything wrong in proclaiming that we will do those things?

  13. Michael

    I don’t want it to be adversarial either. Sorry if it came across that way.

    Suppose you took one of my hacked out sermons and made it good and edifying, what makes you think I wouldn’t say Hallelujah?

    But if I changed your sermon in a way that I thought made it better, but you thought made it much worse—quite different to your intended meaning (say, just as a hypothetical example, by changing the word “propitiation” to “expiation”)—wouldn’t you be annoyed at that?

    If I was Bryson Smith, and Hillsong took one of my songs and changed the words to suit their different theological perspectives, I would be a little upset. (So I can understand why they don’t want us to do it to them.)

    I’m glad to hear Philip’s experience is that evangelical songwriters have the humility to be open to suggestions for improvement though.

    re. the purpose of copyright laws

    As I understand it, one of the main rationales for copyright protection of intellectual work is to encourage people (not necessarily “multinational corporations”) to engage in that creative work. I guess in the Christian world many of us have non-financial motives for doing that work in the first place, so maybe we need to ask ourselves whether we need to be paid for it.

    As for your other examples of a preacher taking a few liberties in quoting jokes or poems, well, I guess there are always some areas of discretion and some accepted realities. Copyright law is, after all, a civil rather than criminal field of law. Jokes, for example, are put out in the public domain by their creators, with the common assumption that they will be repeated and retold and slightly modified. (But actually, copyright may not always apply to jokes anyway, because jokes are really the telling of an idea. Copyright protects the expression of the idea in concrete words, not the idea itself.) But I understand that a comic will consider it poor form if another comic uses his jokes in a professional way.

    I’m not proposing being ridiculously pedantic about copyright, but perhaps the old “do unto others” might be worth keeping in mind. If I’d written that, would I be happy that people are using/changing it without my permission?

  14. It is very easy to get carried away by the negative facet of copyrighting – the restrictive, perhaps prescriptive way it forces us to use music in our churches.

    For Micheal’s sake, I have 4 years of theological training, and what I would like to believe are musical gifts and teaching gifts. For what it’s worth, I would rather bin a song with questionable theology than rewrite bits of it, because that’s what the law requires me to do. The person writing is obliged under God to ensure his songs are true to the Bible and Christian experience before going to press, rather than letting the public domain improve it for him. We’re talking vehicles for worship here, not opensource software!

    But copyrighting has another, positive side. If I write a song, and I have done the necessary homework to ensure that it is Biblical, singable and playable, then having a copyright on my work does the following good things:

    – it protects a good song from being altered by whim or a poor theological tradition which change songs to suit their theology.
    – it gives endless publishing opportunities and therefore opportunities for churches to get hold of good songs
    – it provides a legitimate source of income by which I might continue my song-writing ministry (be aware, royalties for writing Christian songs aren’t exactly lucrative)

    Furthermore, if we can’t chuck out a song because of bad theology (or even because of bad music) but would rather alter bits of it, are we not perhaps placing too much or even too little emphasis on the songs we sing?

    For some cracking songs, which are copyrighted but royalty-free, go to

  15. I can think of one example of one successful lyrics-changing attempt.  The original version of “Amazing Love (You Are My King)” says “Amazing love, how can it be, that you my King should die for me, Amazing love I know it’s true, it’s my joy to honour you.  In all I do, I honour you”.  Now, I don’t think it takes much to realise that we don’t honour God in everything we do. 

    Newsboys featured the song on one of their albums, with one alteration… “It’s my joy to honour you, in all I do **to** honour you”.  Much more theologically sound.

    Now I am making an assumption here that a big name band will have ticked all the legal boxes and had it all approved.  So it does happen.

    Although I can understand why a song writer may not authorise changes.

    And yes, I’m sick of churches singing hymns or other songs to completely different tunes.  We’re not talking about two different tunes for “When I Survey” that date back 200 years (for example) but the 20 different tunes within 50 or so congregations…

  16. And, just to be cheeky…what about when the original author got his lyric wrong? I mean, clearly didn’t use the word he meant?

    I’m thinking here of ‘Blessed Be Your Name’, where we are meant to sing about ‘pain in the offering’ when I suspect he means ‘pain in the offing’.

    On a more serious note – Romans 13 isn’t meant to be a blanket injunction, is it? If a governing authority instructs its population to exterminate a minority, I don’t think it’s incumbent upon the Christians to submit to that.

    It’s not quite in the same league, but I still think there’s fair scope for debate, at least.

  17. Anthony asks whether Romans 13 should be seen as a blanket injunction.

    I agree: there will be examples when it seems (to me) that civil disobedience is in order. Yet, at the same time, the apostolic teaching seems to be reminding us that there will be times when we need to submit to government rule—even if we would rather not. Note that 1 Peter 2 is just as strong as Romans 13 on this.

    With respect to the topic at hand, it means that (unless you can find some major escape clause “in the Lord”) churches are obliged to obey copyright laws—even if they’d rather not.

    Which raises a new question. If we dislike a songwriter’s theology, how might the notion of “the weaker brother” apply here? How much should we tolerate a weaker theology (both of those who write the songs and those who like them)? Why might we do this? How do we gently guide all parties to the next step in growth?

  18. Being completely facetious here,

    How do we gently guide all parties to the next step in growth?

    Change the offending words so as to gently instruct the song writer and song leader in a more pleasant and pure doctrine. smile

    But seriously,

    It is important, but not easy, to first of all separate out personality and personal issues.  Unemotional people aren’t going to like emotional songs, but emotional Christians might need them.  So an unemotional pastor might choose songs he hates. Vice versa, etc.

    When does my personal taste sneak in as ‘superior theology’?  For example, why do we baulk at “darling of heaven” but happily swallow “heaven’s champion”  Both strictly, literally unbiblical, but both picking up strong, important Biblical themes.

    Isn’t at least part of the key humility, which I think, others were saying before.

    God Bless,
    Michael Hutton

  19. Interested in what was said about omitting verses.

    Some hymns are incredibly long. Churches I have attended have always left out some verses in some hymns.

    There are many hymns whose complete words are no longer sung. I recently attended a wedding where the couple had chosen When I Survey the Wondrous Cross and had included a bizarre verse that nobody sings these days:

    Are we breaking faith with Isaac Watts if we don’t include:

    “His dying crimson, like a robe,
    Spreads o’er His body on the tree:
    Then am I dead to all the globe,
    And all the globe is dead to me.”

    Should we include the verse in Faith of our Fathers which says
    Faith of our Fathers
    Mary’s prayers
    shall bring the nations back to Thee?

    Can we sing None but Christ Can Satisfy, but leave out the verse

    I tried the broken cisterns Lord
    but ah the waters failed
    And even as I stooped to drink
    They mocked me as I wailed?

  20. [trying to be calm]

    Many hours of thought goes into choosing just the right words for a congregational song.  It is presumption to think that you can spend 2 minutes and come up with a better line.

    ‘Forever I’ll love you, forever I’ll stand’ is trashy theology.  Yes.  But ‘Forever you’ll love me and cause me to stand’ is trash too.  The original line fit perfectly with the direction of the song and the songwriter’s intent.  It’s also nice to sing (which the new line is not.)  If you don’t like what the lyricist was trying to do, just sing a different song.

  21. Concerning updating the lyrics, have you seen Geoff Bullock’s own efforts at updating his songs?

    The originals all seem to scan better to me.

    And sometimes, I can’t see the theological point in the changes.

  22. Going back to Michael’s first posting (sorry Michael if you’re feeling beaten around the head but these are questions you raised):
    This discussion could end up quite complicated.  Is the copyright system appropriate for Christian ministry?  Are the assumptions of the secular copyright system the same as ours?  In what sense can a Christian claim to own the fruit of God’s gift that was given them to serve the congregation? Should the pastor submit to the song writer’s teaching or the other way around? (ie Does the gift of musical ability trump the gift of teaching and five years of theological training?)

    (a) Ephesians 5:21 – Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

    Submission isn’t one or the other, it’s both (or all, depending on situation).  It’s not (or shouldn’t be) a case of trumps.

    (b) Many of the Christian world’s lyricists have had formal theological training.  However, if I were to write a song, would my lack of opportunity for such training negate my 35 year “womb to tomb” Christian experience?  Also, since many (sadly) come out of theological institutions as practical atheists, I don’t think theological training is an accurate guide of sound theology.

    (c) Luke 10:7 (…the worker deserves his wages…)  I take this to mean that just as a preacher is worth paying, so are the song writers.

    Some notes on copyright:
    – copyright exists as soon as you create the work, you don’t have to register it with any organisation for copyright to exist;
    – registering a work with an organisation may help you as the author get paid for use of it;
    – an author may choose to waive right to payment without waiving the right to artistic control (so may let a song be used for free without letting it be a free-for-all on altering words or music);
    – just because an author may choose to waive his or her right to payment does not give anyone the right to assume they have, regardless of whether they have done so in the past.

    My view is that if the writers are dead and the song has passes into public domain (50 – 70 years, depending on jurisdiction, after the death of the author, not after the piece was written) then some argument can be made for arbitrarily changing dodgy lyrics. (“Ye that are men, now serve Him” into “Ye that are brave, now serve Him” from “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” comes to mind as Satan doesn’t give a toss that I’m female; he’ll still attack me.)  Other than that, ask permission of the author to change it or don’t use the song.  Oh, and pray that you aren’t rostered on for playing when there’s a song you hate on the list. wink

  23. copyright exists as soon as you create the work

    Yes, but for it to be copyright, you have to put it into a physical format: record it, write it down, video it, put it on a computer disk or website, but do put it into a physical format.

  24. Hi David,

    Indeed – it might be a bit hard to win a case for breach of copyright on the basis that you’ve had it in your head all the while. grin

  25. Laetitia,

    I don’t mind if you bring up my previous post if you agree with me smile  which I kinda feel you did.

    I heard from somewhere (I can’t remember who told me and they didn’t quote sources, hmmm…)

    Q:  Is the minister God’s gift to the congregation or the servant of the congregation? 

    A:  Both!  The minister needs to think of himself as the servant of the congregation and the congregation needs to think of him as God’s gift to them, then it all works. 

    If the congregation sees him as a servant, or the minister sees himself as God’s gift to an underserving lot, then there will be trouble.

    Is it the same here?

    Musicians and congregations need to keep a humble and serving attitude.

    Musicians build up the congregation. (including protecting lyrics from abuse)
    Congregations enable the musicians. (including appropriate renumeration)

    And we all stay out of the law courts wink

    God bless,

  26. Michael’s last comment actually picks up on some of the intention of my original article. What does it mean to ‘lead’ when it comes to these kinds of issues? (My old minister used to phrase it: “I am the church’s servant, but the church is not my master.”)

    Does a minister or a music leader better ‘lead’ by wise selection of songs or through judicious editing within songs? “Both” is obviously one plausible answer. But I penned my initial piece because I regularly see leaders choosing the latter option in place of the former.

    Picking up some other thoughts (especially Laetitia’s), how might a leader ‘lead’ if the songwriter were a member of the local congregation? My guess is that the leader would consult the songwriter and take steps to have the songwriter alter the lyrics; I can’t imagine the leader making changes unilaterally. What about if the composer were a cherished member of our local diocese? Of our national denomination? Where, then, is the boundary we suddenly cross on those occasions when we feel justified in changing an author’s words? Is it simply with authors we don’t know (and can’t be bothered contacting)? With those whose theology or denomination are ‘obviously’ prone to make the kinds of slips that we’re smart enough to spot and correct? What is the attitude that would make us react one way when we know the author and another way elsetimes? (I’m just trying to understand the mindset, as well as to explore useful ways to think about and apply our deliberations!) grin

  27. I recently stumbled across the following information, albeit a little late.

    American Idol recently did a benefit concert, at which all of the contestants sang ‘My Jesus, My Saviour’ in full. Except, the first run of the concert, broadcast across the US, the first line was amended to ‘My shepherd, my saviour’. The second time around, the original lyric was reinstated. Wonder if Darlene asserted her copyright?!

  28. Anthony,
    If true then it would be a good thing for Darlene to jump up and down as changing “Jesus” to “shepherd” takes it from being a definitely Christian song to one that any theistic religion could use.

    There’s also the problem with the line “mountains bow down and the seas will roar at the sound of your name” (writing this from memory of the song – I don’t have access to the lyrics).  Whose name is it if “Jesus” is changed to “shepherd”?

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