What is the best Bible copyright license?

I got some questions from some thoughtful people about why I recommended the Creative Commons BY-NC-ND+ license for Bibles, as outlined at http://PNGScriptures.org/terms.htm in my last post. It is NOT because I think it is the best possible license. I don’t. It is because it is the best one I have been able to get widespread agreement on. It is a compromise, and it allows most of what we need to do without additional permission. There are some things that still need additional permission: revisions, adaptations, and selling copies (especially printed ones). Those permissions can be granted on a case-by-case basis, as requested, provided that the copyright owner is accessible, responsive, and willing.

Let’s take a look at the relevant license features in Creative Commons licenses, and some of their pros and cons. All of these alternatives allow sharing and republishing to some degree, without royalties, but they differ in some ways. Bold type face indicates my biases in the table below.

Feature Pro Con
Allow commercial use Maximizes distribution potential by allowing sales of
printed Bibles, including print-on-demand services, where paper
and ink are not free. Harnesses profit motive for distribution,
but limits excesses with competitive pressure on prices.
Some copyright owners are unwilling to allow commercial use
unless they get royalties. The motive may be to support a
ministry, or to support themselves, or both. That makes getting
this kind of permission more difficult.
Forbid commercial use Eliminates many arguments with respect to how profits should
be shared. Still allows some printing or distribution on digital
media, if it is clearly nonprofit.
Most publishers won’t publish anything with such a
restriction, thus reducing the supply of such Bibles, especially
in print. This puts a damper on print-on-demand services, etc.,
which can be very helpful for minority-language Scriptures.
Therefore, additional permission must be supplied for such cases
where necessary, requiring the copyright owner to be responsive
and willing to supply such permission when appropriate, and to
know when it is appropriate. Deciding what is commercial use or not is contentious.
Allow derivative works when shared alike. Allows legitimate updates, revisions, adaptations with no
hassle to the translators and no delay for permission. Keeps the
results in a good free culture license.
Allows changes by people who might not be qualified or
anointed to make minor changes, with possibly heretical results.
Does not prevent major heretical changes.
Allow derivative works without demanding sharing under the
same license.
Allows legitimate updates, revisions, and adaptations with no
hassle and no delay for permission.
Allows minor changes by people who might not be qualified or
anointed to make minor changes, with possibly heretical results.
Revisions could be enslaved in a non-free license or no
license. Does not prevent major heretical changes.
Disallow derivative works that change the text or punctuation,
but allow changes to file formats and encoding and allow
Allows transformation to other formats, such as for
different software and platforms. Allows extracts for use in
Bible studies, Sunday School materials, books, etc.
Forbids legitimate updates, revisions, and adaptations
without additional permission from the copyright owners. Requires
the copyright owner to be responsive and available to grant
permission to legitimate revisers, or risk quenching God’s work.
Copyright owner is responsible to know the difference between
legitimate and illegitimate revision requests. Does not prevent
major heretical changes.
Disallow any derivative works Allows verbatim file copies and minimal transformations in
file format.
Forbids extracts without additional permission.Forbids legitimate updates, revisions, and adaptations
without additional permission from the copyright owners. Forbids
conversions to formats for different software and platforms or
different kinds of web site displays. Does not prevent major
heretical changes.
Public Domain with TradeMarked Name Allows all legitimate revisions, updates, and adaptations.
Protects the integrity of the TradeMark owner by requiring
derivative works to use a different name. Allows all copying and
publishing, free or for profit. Harnesses profit motive to
encourage printing, but limits abuses with competitive pressure
on prices. Outlasts copyright expiration.

Doesn’t prevent large or small
heretical changes, but prevents any changes, good or bad, with
the same translation name (at least legally).

GLW License

Allows any copying and extracts that don’t change the text,
for free or for profit.

Requires additional permission to
make revisions, updates, or adaptations.

As you can see, the choices of the options offered on CreativeCommons.org are not necessarily clear. Indeed, the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-No Derivatives is downright lousy unless you add the two standing additional permissions that we added on PNGScriptures.org. Then it is acceptable for any kind of free distribution and redistribution of that unmodified Bible translation, but lacking in the revision department. Although copyright law isn’t about preventing heresy, and it doesn’t, there is some fear that granting general permission to make revisions might somehow make heresy easier. Nevertheless, God still protects His work, and makes plain what is and is not a good translation. The bigger danger is in not granting a license to make revisions, then disappearing, dying, or otherwise failing to be a good steward of the copyright for its life span (which is likely longer than yours). This means that affirmative permission to make revisions and updates would not be forthcoming, and this could prevent legitimate ministry. Which is the greater risk? The latter is certainly more likely, given today’s legal and social climate. Both are clearly bad.

As for me, I trust God to take care of His Word. My first shot at a Bible license, back before I had heard of the Creative Commons, and even before the Internet was a household word, was the GLW license. It was very close to a Creative Commons Attribution No Derivatives, with additional permission to make extracts and change file formats. There was no restriction on commercial use, except that nobody got exclusive publication rights. It was good, but by the time I got to the World English Bible project, I went with a public domain dedication and TradeMarked name. This means that I fully trust God to take care of His Word and deal with anyone who might abuse it. It also means that I really mean it when I value sharing God’s Word as much as possible, without regard to personal profit. God hasn’t let me or my children starve, yet. I also haven’t seen any grievous abuses of the World English Bible. I have seen lots of great ministry and fruit in people’s lives, though– and expect to see much more in eternity. May God bless those who support us and help make this possible!