Copyright Fact and Fiction

Hundreds of Bibles by kahunapulej
Hundreds of Bibles, a photo by kahunapulej on Flickr.

In the process of securing permission to publish translations of the Holy Bible and portions thereof, I have had to study some copyright law in detail. I’m not a lawyer, but I can read English and understand some complex issues. I recommend that you check my assertions against the actual law and/or get competent counsel from a real legal expert who specializes in intellectual property law before acting on what I say. If you find an error in this article, I invite your correction.

Fiction: Copyright can be renewed indefinitely.
Fact: All copyrights expire and the protected work enters the public domain at that point. Exactly when that happens depends on when and where it was published, when it was created, and if the copyright is owned by a corporation or individual(s). Anything published in the USA before 1923 is in the public domain, now. Current copyright law provides a longer period of validity than earlier laws, but it is still finite and copyrights still don’t last forever. Anything published in the USA today for the first time will enter the public domain 70 years after the last surviving author dies, or for work for hire by a corporation, 95 years from this year. For details, please see and Some people claim that the Crown Patent on the printing of the King James Version of Holy Bible is a non-expiring copyright, but it isn’t a true copyright and has no effect in most of the world. It is also doubtful that it has any effect on digital editions of the KJV Bible. If you live in Great Britain and have doubts, see if you can find someone who knows for sure.

Fiction: Converting a work to another format merits a new copyright claim.
Fact: Copyright only protects substantial creative works. Typing the contents of a book into a text file is work and it is tedious, but it is in no way creative. This is true even if some sort of standard markup is applied to indicate the structure of the printed book. An example of the law working this way is a decision that merely arranging names and telephone numbers in alphabetical order does not merit copyright protection, thus invalidating copyright claims on the main part of telephone books. So, if you convert the Latin Vulgate to USFM, using hours of your time laboriously inserting markers, don’t expect to win a lawsuit against anyone who copies that work without your permission.

Fiction: Copyright can be extended by revising a work.
Fact: If the revision amounts to a substantial creative work, such as a language update, adding new material, and such, a new copyright can be claimed on the new revision, but the original, unrevised work will still expire at the same time as it would have before the revision was made.

Fiction: A publisher must be listed as the copyright holder.
Fact: Nothing in the copyright law requires such a transfer. All that is required is that the copyright owner grants permission to publish to the publisher. The normal means of doing so is via a contract. It is also possible to transfer ownership of a copyright. In that case, the copyright becomes the property of the new owner, and the original owner no longer owns the copyright. Increasingly common practice among authors and publishers is to never transfer the actual copyright, but only selected rights associated with the copyright. The verso page of a modern book will often list the author as copyright owner, and have a separate statement of who the publisher is, with still another statement of who to contact for permission to make copies of all or part of the book (i. e. to quote a portion in another book).

Fiction: Copyright just applies to a particular form or expression of a work, like a single printing of a paper book.
Fact: Copyright means that the copyright owner has rights to allow or disallow copies in any format, including digital, printed, etc. See the definition of “copies” in for a very emphatic, watertight definition of anything that could possibly be a useful copy in any format.

Fiction: Copyright can actually belong to someone besides the person, group, or corporation claiming copyright in a copyright notice in a work.
Fact: A copyright notice is a legal notice of who owns the copyright, with very specific rules about the format. Essentially, there are three possibilities: (1) the notice is present and correct, (2) the notice is present and incorrect, and (3) the notice is absent. Case (1) is good. Case (2) indicates theft, implicit transfer of copyright ownership, outdated copyright ownership information, or a printing error. Unless the notice in a work is publicly and vigorously contested, the effect is one of implicit copyright ownership transfer, reducing this to case (1) either intentionally or otherwise. Copyright notices should be taken seriously, because the general public will assume that the notice is accurate. Case (3) is allowed under current copyright law, and is preferable to an incorrect notice, but makes defending a copyright more difficult. Case (2), when allowed to persist uncorrected, makes defending a copyright claim nearly impossible.

Fiction: Copyright claims on Bible translations can prevent heretical translations.
Fact: Since the original manuscripts of the Holy Bible were written well before 1923, they are firmly in the Public Domain. A new translation is a new creative work, and the more it differs from other translations, the less likely a claim of copyright violation against an existing translation can succeed. At a minimum, a translation need only differ from another translation as much as current translations differ from each other. Indeed, the more heretical, the more creative, the better under copyright law, at least with respect to overthrowing an attempted copyright infringement lawsuit. Orthodoxy is not nearly as creative, but it is preferable for some very compelling reasons that have nothing to do with copyright law. Of course, there is a HIGHER LAW concerning God’s Word, and the consequences of violating God’s Law are potentially much more serious than anything copyright law can offer. Copyright law and treaties are ignored in significant portions of the world, and enforcement may be technically possible but extremely improbable, so what “protection” is there is marginal, at best. The best you can do with copyright as a form of “protection” of God’s Word is to sue someone who makes a few simple but heretical changes to a translation you own the copyright to.

Fiction: A Public Domain work can be licensed under a Creative Commons or Open Source license.
Fact: “Public Domain” is the opposite of copyrighted. It means that a work is not copyrighted. Without a binding copyright, Creative Commons and Open Source licenses are meaningless, and cannot be enforced, because they rely on the fact that the licensed work is copyrighted. (So don’t bother suggesting that the World English Bible or the American Standard Version be licensed under a Creative Commons license.)

Fiction: There is no copyright law in Papua New Guinea (or another country)
Fact: Although there was a short time after PNG independence before a copyright law was passed and international treaty signed, that is no longer true. Even a new country like Kosovo has a copyright law.

Fiction: Copyright law is clear and consistent.
Fact: Copyright law leaves a lot to the imagination and the discretion of judges and certain administrative offices. Copyright law and respect for the same varies by country and region, even though international treaties provide some consistency and international protection. For example, the “fair use” doctrine in the USA is nice, if somewhat fuzzy as to how much of an excerpt is protected, but Australian law has no such clause.

You can read more about copyright… much more… at