Bible copyright licensing issues

Old Bible in a clear box
Old Public Domain Bible in a church display.

If you are involved in decision making concerning licensing of copyrighted Bibles or in translating Bibles, this is for you.

The issues of copyright, licensing, and Bibles are more complex than I thought they were. I thought that I knew enough about these issues back when I was manager of the Publications and Computer Training Department at SIL PNG, or even back when I started work on the World English Bible. Don’t get me wrong: I had read the copyright laws of the USA and PNG, and was aware of some copyright treaties. It is just that now I know more about not just the laws and treaties, but how some people and organizations perceive those things and what some of the implications of our current legal, social, technological, and ministry environment is. You see, it takes more than knowledge. It takes wisdom. Just wisdom itself isn’t even enough. It takes godly wisdom. Here are a few things I have learned, and some recommendations to solve some of the biggest problems that poor copyright stewardship can cause.

Problem: Unknown Copyright Owners

Copyright law requires permission from the copyright owners before making copies of a copyrighted work. The initial reasoning for this was that the copyright owner could ask for a payment of royalties in return for this permission, thus ensuring some fair compensation for the creation of their creative work. After all, why should Alice write a novel, pay Bob to print it and sell it at a profit for both of them, only to have Charlie make cheaper copies of the same novel and sell them at a lower price? Copyright law makes all kinds of sense in its original intention of providing fair compensation for writers and artists by enforcing a legal monopoly on making copies of their work for a set amount of time, after which the copyright expires and the work enters the Public Domain. After that, Charlie and anyone else can legally sell all the copies of Alice’s novel that they want. Currently, this set amount of time is very long: 75 years after the last surviving author dies, or for a work owned by a corporation, 95 years after the work was first created. Basically, copyright lasts for a lifetime. It used to be that copyrighted works had to be marked with a copyright notice to be valid. There is also a registration process for copyrights. The funny thing is that although the copyright registration process still exists, it is totally optional, and not required to claim copyright on any new work. Not only that, but no copyright notice is required, either. These simplifications to the process of gaining ownership of a copyright has two unintended consequences: (1) many people own copyrights on things that they have no idea they own copyrights on, and (2) there are many millions of copyrighted works that can be found, but due to a lack of clear notice, there is no easy way to determine who the copyright owner, or even if the copyright is in effect. Another exacerbating problem is that because copyrights are considered intellectual property that can be transferred, even materials with a valid and once helpful copyright notice with full contact information might be obsolete and no longer correct. Copyrights can be sold or transferred by contract, or by simply allowing another person or organization to put their copyright notice on a work. Copyrights sometimes are transferred as part of the assets of a corporation that is sold, has its name changed, or merges with another corporation. And sometimes copyrights are simply abandoned because a corporation owning them dissolves without transferring them to another. Or sometimes copyrights owned by individuals are abandoned because nobody cares about them. In the case of a truly abandoned copyright, the work is effectively in the Public Domain, but it takes significant effort to prove abandonment. The result of the unknown copyright owners problem is that anyone who presumes that a work has an abandoned or expired copyright when it doesn’t, and doesn’t ask proper permission to use a work (because he can’t), the legitimate copyright owner could appear and sue that person for both actual and punitive damages. Even if the legitimate copyright owner doesn’t show up, it is possible that a liar could make a false claim to be the legitimate copyright owner. This would be illegal, of course, but difficult (or maybe impossible) to prove incorrect, and expensive to fight in court. This has an understandable chilling effect on publishing, especially with publishers who try to stay squeaky clean with respect to the law.

Solution to the Unknown Copyright Owners Problem

Here is an obvious solution to the Unknown Copyright Owners problem: (1) Include a correct copyright notice on any important work where it matters, like any good translation of the Holy Bible, and (2) make sure the copyright notice includes durable contact information. By “durable contact information”, I mean something that will keep working even if the copyright is assigned to another party or the contact information for the specific individual empowered to grant copyright permission changes. This might mean a web address and/or a physical street address. In my case, a web address is far more stable than my mailing address has been. Even corporations move from time to time, but an Internet domain name can stay constant as long as the registration fees are paid on it, no matter where the offices or servers are. In the case of a change of ownership, people can be directed to the new owners. For example, the Easy-To-Read Bible translations from the World Bible Translation Center, were bought by the Bible League International, so the old wbtc.org address simply redirects to the new bibleleague.org address. The mailing address printed in their older printed books isn’t quite as durable.

Notice that I used the word “correct” in “Include a correct copyright notice”. I have witnessed many cases of this not being the case, and not because of a copyright change of ownership, but because of a misunderstanding between organizations and a serious lack of understanding of the nature of copyright law in one of them. Someone in authority in one Bible translation agency had repeated the mantra that a copyright only applied to one physical manifestation of a work so often that not only did he believe it himself, but others saw his confidence and believed him, too. Sadly this is simply not the case. Copyright protects a work regardless of its physical manifestation. Also, you can’t keep a copyright AND explicitly allow someone else to print a copyright notice attributing copyright ownership to them without actually losing possession of the copyright. In the absence of a written contract that grants back all rights they just gave up (which absence is normally the case), copyright is transferred to the new party and lost by the old party. This sort of confusion about how copyright works is not conducive to good working relationships between agencies in the Body of Christ.

Problem: Lack of Permission to Use Scripture

This one is big. People translate the Holy Bible so that it will be read, listened to, and heeded. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. (Romans 10:17) For many centuries, no special permission was required to copy, publish, or read the Holy Bible. It just took a lot of labor to do so. Note that in the Bible, all it says about copying itself is a command for Kings to hand write their own copy of the first 5 books of the law, and the Great Commission. In other words, we are supposed to copy and share the Holy Bible!

But… we are supposed to follow the laws of men insofar as they don’t contradict the laws of God, too. So we ask for permission, if we can determine who to ask. Suppose we can ask, but either they do not answer (which is the same as a “no”) or they explicitly say “No.” Now what?

Our first option is to pray. God often has a better plan than you do. He is, after all, much smarter and wiser than all of us put together. It was He who directed me to create the World English Bible in response to copyright permission problems with all modern English Bible translations at the time. That solved the problem for one language. We have about 7,000 to go.

Solution to the Lack of Permission to Use Scripture Problem

One of the most basic things to do when starting a Bible translation project is to get written agreement from all who help that allows the project leader to publish the work and license its publication, clearly stating that they should not expect additional payment upon publication (unless this is a commercial project, not a standard minority language Bible translation). This problem is no a hard a problem from the side of the copyright owners. The solution is simply to (1) make sure you are responsive to copyright permission requests, answering “yes” as much as is reasonable, and (2) provide permission in advance to cover whatever you believe God wants you to allow. After all, according to human laws, it is people who control Bible copyrights, but in reality, people are only stewards of God’s property, which is His Word.

Here are some licensing options for providing permission in advance and some considerations associated with each of them:

License Considerations
Public Domain (CC0 or expired copyright) In the hundreds of years where the Holy Bible existed but copyright law did not, God protected His Word without the benefit of copyright law. He still does. This option can sometimes optionally be combined with a trademark on a translation name to provide some protection for the reputation of the translation, allowing the use of the trademarked name only for faithful copies of the real translation. A Public Domain dedication is the approach taken by the World English Bible, the Tongan Revised West Translation, the Catholic Public Domain Version, and several others. Public Domain is the only legal option for Bible translations whose copyright has expired. (It is possible to copyright a revision of a Public Domain Bible translation, but this does not affect the legal status of the original translation at all.) It is very helpful to clearly mark Public Domain Bibles as such. Legitimate revisions and adaptations are always allowed.
CC BY-SA The Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License 4.0 is similar in effect to a Public Domain dedication, except that it requires those who make revisions and adaptations to also share their work under the same license, and it requires giving credit to the source. This is a free culture license, which ensures that free works remain free. This can be combined with a trademark on a translation name to provide some reputation protection. Legitimate revisions and adaptations are always allowed. This is the standard license used by Wycliffe Associates for their Bible translations.
CC BY-ND The Creative Commons Attribution No Derivatives License 4.0 is more restrictive, in that it does not allow any revisions that change the actual text of the work. It does allow file format transformations, i.e. from USX (the format of the ETEN DBL) to ePub3 (something actually useful to end users). This license does not allow legitimate revisions and adaptations of a Bible translation. Those would need additional permission from the copyright owner.
CC BY-ND-NC The Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial No Derivatives License 4.0 is more restrictive that the above, in that it forbids commercial use. This forbids legitimate revisions and adaptations. It also forbids “commercial use” which has a very negative effect on distribution options like print on demand and placement of Bible apps or eBooks in major app stores and book stores. This option is really only appropriate for cases where the copyright owner wishes to reserve all money-making copy activity to themselves, or to require royalties if there is any money being made by the licensee.
Custom licenses These could be anything. Some copyright owners might wish to allow free publication only in certain formats, or only on certain web sites, or only with a live Internet connection. (The latter is essentially useless in many parts of the world.) It is difficult to imagine too many cases where this sort of extra effort and legal review both by licenser and licensees would be justified, at least in the context of minority language Scriptures.
Verse quotation limit license This sort of license is what is commonly found in the front matter of commercial for-profit Bible translations. It isn’t intended to allow Bible sharing and copying except for a few verses here and there as part of a sermon, Sunday school lesson, church bulletin, etc. Without this license, a translation would have minimal commercial value. This one is all about maximizing monetary profit, not ministry. I recommend using one of the options above, instead.

Which Licenses Protect the Integrity of the Holy Bible?

Honestly, none of them do. Copyright itself doesn’t protect the Holy Bible from malicious subversion or from unintentional error. It might arguably make malicious subversion slightly more risky, but in reality, copyright didn’t stop the New World Translation, nor does it stop translations that are of poor quality. The best reason for using CC BY-ND instead of CC BY-SA is not to protect the Holy Bible at all, but to protect the reputation of the translators. That can be done better (and with longer-lasting legal effect) with a trademark. As a concession to the concerns of Bible translators about who revises their translation, I think CC BY-ND is fine most of the time. I can think of one case, though, where a copyrighted Bible translation has a bad reputation with the local church because of some places where the translation is of poor quality. It would only take a few words changed to make it both more accurate and more readable, but this is so far not allowed by the copyright owner. There is risk in both directions.

Does Giving Away Bible Translations Cut Sales?

The conventional fear is that it does, but in reality, giving away digital copies often increases demand for printed copies of the same translation. It is hard to know. What is easy to know is that traditional publishing house models are being challenged, and must adapt to survive in the digital age. To maximize ministry impact and still keep Bible ministries solvent, it will take more income from donations, greater efficiency of operations, less reliance on sales of Bibles, and greater diversification of sales to stay solvent. Those who adapt will continue vibrant ministries. Those who do not will probably find themselves in difficult situations. It is necessary not only to adapt, but to adapt in a timely fashion. Remember Kodak? The were starting to develop digital photography products, but still went bankrupt in the USA due to excessive continue reliance on film and developing chemistry sales, which dropped off precipitously.

Is Limiting the Term of a License a Good Idea?

It depends on your objectives. If your goal is to maximize monetary gain, it might be, at least to publishers, but probably not to end users. If your goal is to maximize distribution and use of God’s Word, respecting God’s Word as God’s property for His purposes, not man’s accumulation of wealth, then definitely not. If you know for certain that a Bible is a test version that will be updated soon, it might also make sense to grant a limited-term license, but usually once a Bible is cleared for publication, and distributed digitally, it cannot realistically be recalled. It can only be taken down from primary distribution points. Likewise when there is a revision, it can be replaced at the primary distribution points. What has gone out, has gone out. In a sense, this is not much different than print Bibles. The NIV 1984 translation in no way disappeared when the NIV 2011 was released, either in print or digital formats, even though Biblica is promoting the latter, now.

What About Copyright Piracy?

Copyright violations happen. A lot. So does copyfraud. Enforcement of copyright violations is generally left to the copyright owner, whose main means of enforcement are to (1) write to violators demanding that they cease and desist, and (2) suing the violators in civil court. In an international context, this gets complicated, and is often not effective. I have seen a lot of obviously pirated movies for sale in other countries, not only by street vendors, but by reputable retail establishments. It happens in places where you don’t even know to look. The Internet has made copyright violation so commonplace worldwide that many people don’t actually think it is wrong. So why do copyrights and licenses even matter? They matter because as Christians, we strive to have integrity and be legal as much as possible. We try to say what we mean and mean what we say. Copyright restrictions affect honest people who understand the copyright laws and terms they are presented with. That is the main reason I advocate for permissive copyright licenses on translation of the Holy Bible.

For further reading, please see Tim Jore’s article in Mission Frontiers.

Any questions?