Bible Copyright vs. the Church

Bible copyright notices and liberal licenses should be accurate and clearly published with Bibles, lest we hinder the Church’s fulfilment of the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.

Thousands of years ago, over a span of at least a thousand years, the Holy Spirit of God moved a number of people to write the collection of inspired books we now call the Holy Bible. At that time, there was no such thing as copyright law. Indeed, the Holy Bible itself contains no restriction on copying other than warnings in Deuteronomy 4:2 and 12:32, and in Revelation 22:18-19 that should make you want to make the copies and translations accurate. In Deuteronomy 17:18-20, the Kings of Israel are commanded to write themselves a copy of “this law” (i.e. the Torah, or the first 5 books of the Bible) and read it all their life. There are also references to non-royal scribes copying the Scriptures by hand. This copying was essential to the preservation of the Bible, because of the fragility of the media onto which it was copied, especially when heavily used. Even prime leather scrolls would wear out, dry out, crack, and become unusable, but the inspired words would live on and even multiply in fresh copies.

Fast forward to the year 1455 AD, when Gutenburg invented the printing press. The first book printed on that press was, appropriately enough, a Latin translation of the Holy Bible. As the impact of that invention on society and the creation of a publishing industry developed, various laws and decrees from government and religious officials were issued concerning the printing of books. Initially, governing officials seemed more concerned with censorship and controlling this influential channel of communication or with favoring certain publishers than with encouraging creative work. You can read more about that in the history of copyright law on Wikipedia. There were attempts to censor and forbid the publication of some Bible translations by religious officials that are documented various places.

The oldest surviving legal restriction on printing Bibles is in the form of letters patent granting exclusive printing rights of the King James Version of the Holy Bible and the Book of Common Prayer a small set of publishers in the United Kingdom. To the best of my knowledge, these letters patent have no effect outside of the United Kingdom except possibly in the case of imports of printed King James Version Bibles into the United Kingdom.

There are currently other legal restrictions on Bible publishing in some of the countries that need God’s Word the most. For example, selling of Chinese-language Bibles in China is restricted by law to only the older Chinese Union translation, and then only in limited quantities sold directly by the highly-regulated 3-Self church. In some other countries that are dominated by atheism or a non-Christian religion, the printing, publishing, and even possession of the Holy Bible is restricted or totally banned.

In the part of the world where we have religious freedom, we pride ourselves on our freedom to publish the Holy Bible, but there are still serious legal restrictions on publishing the vast majority of the translations of the Holy Bible. These restrictions are enacted in copyright laws and treaties, and enforceable by civil lawsuits with huge damage settlements as well as, in some cases, criminal penalties. Copyright law grants the copyright owner a legal monopoly on making copies in any format: print, digital, and even formats not yet invented. The copyright owner is the one whose copyright notice appears in a work, if it appears, and who can decide if anyone else can make a legal copy in any format or not. If there is no copyright notice, you cannot assume that the work is not copyrighted. (That used to be true, but has not been true for many years, now.) Indeed, under current copyright law, every creative work of writing, recording, or artistic expression is born copyrighted. You own the copyright on a photograph the instant you press the shutter release and the image is recorded in my camera’s memory (or on film if you are using an older camera). You own the copyright on a poem the instant you compose a new poem and write it down or recite it into an audio recording device. More to the point, someone owns the copyright on a new translation of the Bible the instant it is written or recorded. It is either the translators, or, in the case of work for hire, the employer of the translators who own the copyright. Copyrights currently expire, but not for 75 years after the last surviving author dies or 95 years after creation for a work owned by a corporation. (Those numbers vary a little by country, but it is always long enough to throw a damper on waiting until copyright expires if you want to see it with your own mortal eyes.)

The most serious problem with copyright law is this: it prevents or restricts the publication of translations of the life-giving Word of God, as if it was just the same as any other creative work, for the purpose of creating a means for the copyright owner(s) to profit financially from their copyright ownership. I lost track of the number of people who have come to me asking for permission to publish some or all of the World English Bible after being denied permission by copyright owners of some of the big name commercial Bible translations. I always say “yes” again, but it seems that I’m an oddity in the world of Bible publishers.

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some have been led astray from the faith in their greed, and have pierced themselves through with many sorrows. 1 Timothy 6:10, World English Bible

Denying permission to publish God’s Word as widely as practical is at odds with the goals of The Great Commandment and The Great Commission in the Holy Bible, itself. It also begs the question: “Who really owns God’s Word?” Now, it doesn’t have to be this way. Seriously, copyright owners are perfectly free to allow as much copying as they like, and to not require payment of money for that copying. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes it doesn’t. Copyright owners are free to transfer copyright ownership to others (usually done by written contract, but often just by allowing another party to print their copyright notice in a work). Copyright owners are also free to dedicate their work to the Public Domain (i.e. making a public and irrevocable declaration that they give up all of their exclusive rights to control the making of copies of that work). Copyright owners are also free to publish their Bible translations under an appropriate license that allows free copying and publishing. That has happened in some refreshing cases.

Because copyright is no longer something you have to apply for or even give notice of, omitting or giving misleading copyright notices tend to cause more problems than they solve. (Seriously, some publishers insist on getting permission even for Public Domain works. This is extreme, but it happens often enough that I have lost count of requests to republish public domain Bibles from Reputable, law-abiding publishers won’t publish copyrighted works without authoritative permission from the copyright owner, but if they don’t know who ask, they just don’t publish the work. If this work is a Bible, this makes the enemy of our souls’ work easier, but it grieves me. Sometimes such a situation can be recovered from by doing a diligent search to find anyone who claims ownership of the copyright, and if none is found, you can treat it as abandoned property, and publish anyway. If you were right, nobody will sue you for that. If you were right.

Like a frog in water slowly heating to a boil, the Church has acclimated to the changing copyright environment, and even embraced it. The verso page of one early English Bible translation published in the USA says “Copyrighted to protect the integrity of the text.” That copyright has already expired, since that Bible was published before 1923. Is the integrity of the text no longer protected? Or is it just that the survivability and utility of that translation is better now that anyone can copy or publish it legally without asking permission of anyone? The urban legend that copyright can protect the integrity of a Bible translation lives on, in spite of a lack of supporting evidence and considerable evidence to the contrary. (The more “creative” and heretical a translation of the Holy Bible is, the less likely it can be claimed that it is an illegal copy or derivative of an existing work, and therefore heretical and error-filled Bible translations are better protected by copyright law than legitimate translations.) Somebody fill me in again on how God ever managed to protect the integrity of His Word prior to copyrights, and how He managed to preserve His Word even in the face of persecution and censorship in the thousands of years before copyright laws existed, lest I start believing this idea, myself, please. Seriously, God is well able, even though He chooses to keep working through fallible people to do this.

In today’s legal and publishing environment, ignoring copyright issues in Bible translation threatens our ability to actually use a Bible translation to its greatest potential. Even doing things the way they have frequently been done before can be a serious mistake. What are the dangers? There are two major threats: (1) a Bible translation that took many man-years and a huge amount of money to create for a target language group can be blocked from publication in the channels that have the highest ministry impact, and (2) disputes about intellectual property rights can arise between brothers and sisters in Christ who should be cooperating to share what is really God’s property with those who need it most.

Please note that my intention is not to condemn those who sell Bibles for profit, but to call those who translate the Holy Bible as a ministry first to wake up and pay attention to the first principles of why we do what we do. Minority-language translations of the Holy Bible are generally not profit centers for anyone, but translations of the Holy Bible into languages spoken by larger numbers of people can be extremely profitable. In between are some cases where sales of Bibles are the only significant source of funding for some organizations that run more like publishing houses than ministries. Rationalizing selling Bibles and denying free copies, even electronically, is easy (but possibly misguided) in these cases. The challenge is to find new ways of funding ministries while still acting in ways that maximize ministry impact and distribution of the Holy Bible, especially in electronic formats that can “go viral”. I like to encourage such organizations to shift to a combination of donation-based funding and running of other businesses that don’t hurt their Bible distribution reach.

Summaries of some of the horror stories I have experienced in Bible copyright mismanagement include:

  • Failure to get written agreement from all translators at the beginning of a Bible translation project that the Bible translation will be published, and who will be copyright steward. At the end, someone says “no” to electronic publishing, and there isn’t much that can be done about it besides beg… and sometimes other members of the team are disinclined to do that. (This resulted in me being denied permission to publish more than one translation electronically.)
  • Misunderstanding between a Bible translation organization and a publisher about copyright ownership about exactly what the implications of the publisher putting their own copyright notice in a printed Bible is. The translation organization thinks they still own the copyright, but the publisher claims that they own the copyright, as clearly printed in the book. This puts the Bible translation organization in the position of having to beg for rights to publish the translation they produced in other media. (I have truly lost count of how many times this has come up. The last time was last week. In the mean time, there are hundreds of completed translations I lack permission to publish electronically because of this, since the publisher is often more profit-motivated than the translation organization. If this went to court, the publisher would be the likely winner.)
  • Secret agreements to misrepresent who the copyright owner is in a copyright notice. Besides moral issues with this problem, any such secret agreements rapidly become ineffective precisely because they are secret and the copyright notice is not.
  • Assignment of multiple Bible translation copyrights to a nonexistent corporation. Seriously, I saw this happen… and continue, even when I asked about it. In a world where you need positive permission from the copyright owner to avoid risk of lawsuit before publishing a Bible translation, there is a risk that these Bibles will not be published by reputable publishers until their copyrights expire in 95 years. This risk is mitigated a little by the fact that the people who should have been listed as the copyright owners would have trouble establishing standing to sue a publisher… but what if a hostile person registered a corporation in that name just to claim title to that abandoned intellectual property? Who wants to pay lawyers to sort that out?
  • People saying “no” to Bible publication who don’t actually have standing to do so.
  • People refusing to say “yes” to Bible publication for fear of impact on sales revenues. (These people may have legitimate ministry concerns and rationalizations, but the fact is that they are claiming the right to fund their operation by selling what rightfully belongs to God.)
  • People refusing to say “yes” to Bible publication because they mistakenly think that all they need is one publication in one format, and that is enough. In reality, increasing the number of places and ways people can access the Scriptures increases the chances that they will actually start reading and listening to it.
  • People refusing to say “yes” to electronic Scripture publication because they don’t see any computer-literate people in their village, and don’t consider the few who left there to go to big cities worthy of consideration, or the increasing access to technology that is coming soon to such remote places.

How do we improve the situation and make ministry rather than money the primary motive in publishing the Holy Bible, especially in electronic formats where the cost of publishing is very small?

  • Educate everyone involved in Bible translation and publication what the copyright issues are, and what copyright really is under current laws and treaties.
  • Designate responsible copyright stewards for each Bible translation agency, and make sure that the copyright notice leads to the correct copyright steward.
  • Publish Scriptures with an appropriate license to go along with the copyright notice. I suggest using the one at, which is the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No derivative works license with additional permission to make extracts and to port to other file formats as long as the integrity of the Sacred text is maintained. Attribution means preserving the copyright notice and not claiming it as your own work, but giving credit where credit is due. Noncommercial is a sort of compromise, because it can be hard to define in cases like print on demand, but it makes life easier, especially in Papua New Guinea, where if anyone thinks you are making money off of something involving their language or work, they want some of it. With no money to argue over, there is no sound of arguments to bother us. The no derivative works clause in the standard Creative Commons license is actually a little too restrictive. What we really want is to preserve the words and punctuation of the Holy Bible, but we also want to allow people to convert the Bible into other file formats for use in various Bible study formats, etc. We also want to explicitly permit taking an extract, like copying and pasting a passage into a Bible study. Thus the additional permissions. This should actually be put in both print and electronic versions of the Bible. This lightens the load on the copyright steward and makes it clear that we value ministry over money.
  • Make sure that copyright notices are both included and accurate. Please note that it is never necessary to assign a copyright to a publisher, but if you do, please make sure you have a public written agreement with that publisher allowing perpetual nonexclusive rights to do anything with the text you might want to do, including distributing it in redistributable formats and making revisions. (I say “public” written agreement because I have heard claims that such agreements exist in some cases, but the other party denies the existence of such an agreement. The only prudent course for a risk-averse publisher is to not publish in such a case.)