Public Domain works stay Public Domain

Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo da VinciI

Believe it or not, some people keep trying to claim copyright ownership on a creative work that was already in the Public Domain due to copyright expiration. This is kind of like some random person trying to charge extra for admission to public land that is supposed to be free to access. That is because copyright is an exclusive right to make copies (or permit copies to be made) of a creative work. It is the creation of the work that merits the copyright, not making copies of it.

Making a copy of a Public Domain work in another format is not copyrightable. See case law in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bridgeman_Art_Library_v._Corel_Corp. and https://www.law.cornell.edu/copyright/cases/36_FSupp2d_191.htm where the court says that taking a picture of a public domain work of art does not create a copyright, even though the output is in a different format. Everything published before 1923 is firmly in the Public Domain, including everything that Leonardo da Vinci painted. If you just take a picture of it, that is just making a copy, not creating a new creative work, so the result is still in the Public Domain. If you make a copy in another file format, that is still just making a copy, and not making a new creative work, and therefore does not merit copyright.

Facts are not copyrightable. Function is not copyrightable. (It may be patentable, like the PDF patent, but Adobe granted open rights to anyone to use their PDF patent.) Mechanical or slavish replication of data or an artistic work is not copyrightable separately. Arrangement of names and phone numbers in a phone book is not creative enough to be copyrightable. See case law in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feist_Publications,_Inc.,_v._Rural_Telephone_Service_Co. and https://www.law.cornell.edu/copyright/cases/499_US_340.htm where the Supreme Court says so.

Anyway, all this means that just because you convert a work into another file format does not mean that you can copyright the result, even if it took a lot of labor or expense to do so. Labor isn’t copyrightable. Creativity is. Therefore, if a work is in the Public Domain, there is no loophole in the law that allows you to enslave it to copyright again just by making a copy in another format. You could do some creative enhancement to the work and copyright the derivative work, but the original Public Domain work stays in the Public Domain.

I like this, because it means that I can use lots of Public Domain works freely in all sorts of good ways. This is really important to me in the case of the Holy Bible. Recent translations may be copyrighted, but the original manuscripts and older translations are all in the Public Domain. And they stay there. I believe that is a good thing!

Why so many Bible sites and formats?

World English Bible logoA friend asked me about a Bible site and said it seemed like one was a duplication of effort. Maybe it is, but if it is, it is a good kind of duplication of effort.

Have you ever walked along Waikiki and noticed the ABC stores? Are they duplication of effort or smart marketing? They sell the same stuff and all are part of the same corporation. So why do they have a store every block or two in tourist-dense areas? What about Starbucks? Surely there must be some duplication of effort going on, there? Or at grocery stores, why do they put candy in the checkout lanes instead of just in the candy isles? Is it just smart marketing again? Obviously, the point is to be seen, to be found, to be convenient, and to serve as many of their customers as practical. It is the same with all of the Bible web sites I’m involved with. It isn’t a human corporation, but God whom we serve. It isn’t stuff for sale, but the life-giving Word of God that we provide. There are Bible sites featuring individual Bible translations, customized for that particular language and culture. (Baibala.org is one example, featuring the Hawaiian Bible, but there are many.) There are national Bible sites and regional Bible sites. (TokPlesBaibel.org and VanuatuBibles.org are a couple of examples of these.) There are global sites that try to feature every Bible translation in every language that they can. (eBible.orgScriptureEarth.org, Bible.is, Bibles.org, and Free.Bible are a few of these.) There are also many Bible study apps and Bibles in various eBook formats. Each of these has their own advantages for different people. There is not any single Bible site, app, or format that best meets everyone’s needs.

The needs and expectations of someone who speaks English, lives in a place where freedom of religion is a protected right, and has constant free or cheap Internet access differ greatly from the needs of someone who speaks a minority language, who might be persecuted severely for reading the Holy Bible, or who has costly and intermittent Internet access. Likewise, there are some who might never go to a big Bible site looking for the Scriptures in their own language, but would visit a site featuring their own language and culture, or perhaps a more regional site. Others might start first at a larger Bible site to see if their language is represented. Some might just enter a phrase in their own language into a search engine to see what comes up. Others would prefer to read the Holy Bible in an app or Bible study program on their phone, tablet, or computer. Still others might prefer to read the Bible like they read other books on a dedicated device like the Amazon Kindle.

So which do we support? All of them that we can practically do. This isn’t a problem with wasted effort when we share Scriptures in a common format. Sure, it gets complicated with copyrights and copyright owner policies at times, but there are hundreds of Bible translations for minority languages that are freely shared under a Creative Commons license. There are also Bible translations that are in the Public Domain. These are the ones that get the most exposure, and which ultimately do the most good for the people who speak those languages. This is because they are the most available, because they get shared with many sites and apps. They can also be shared directly between people reading the Bible, which is important in creative access countries.

Now you know why I share Scriptures with others who run web sites and create Bible study apps (when copyright restrictions allow), even though I already have the same Scriptures posted on web sites I operate, and at least one app format, and in two ebook formats (epub3 and mobi). You also know why I sometimes post Scriptures that someone else has already posted. It is because I firmly believe that God’s Word is good for people. When mixed with faith, it can change a person’s eternal destiny and transform whole societies for the better.

Finding and tracking all available Bibles is a huge task. Check out find.Bible for a great resource in this area. If that doesn’t work, try one of the usual generic web search engines.

About Counting Digital Bibles

Marked up Bible page
Inductive Bible study using page printed from a digital Bible

Counting Bibles is kind of like counting Israelites in the Old Testament. Sometimes God commanded a census be taken. Sometimes He specifically didn’t want a census to be taken, and punished King David for doing so at the wrong time. There are some good reasons to count digital Bibles and some good reasons not to. I try to satisfy the needs represented by the reasons to count digital Bibles without crossing the line into the area where it would be bad.

Here are the best reasons to count digital Bibles:

  • To make sure that people are finding the Bibles we post for them.
  • To encourage the many people who are involved in translating and distributing Bibles.
  • To discover ways to improve Bible distribution.
  • To reassure financial partners that we are being good stewards of the funds entrusted to us for this purpose. They understandably want to make sure that their investment in the Kingdom of Heaven is doing some good.

Here are the best reasons to NOT count digital Bibles:

  • Encumbering digital Bibles with metric instrumentation is extra work and adds costs that are not directly related to Bible distribution.
  • Adding metric instrumentation limits the number of formats that can be used for Bible distribution, precluding the use of some very good standard electronic book and Bible study module formats.
  • Metric instrumentation usually assumes the presence of a full-time, cheap or free Internet connection, but most of the Bible translations I distribute are for people who live in areas with intermittent, slow, and very expensive Internet, if they have Internet access at all.
  • Metric instrumentation reporting back to home is inherently dangerous in places where anti-Christ powers of darkness commit physical violence against those who read and own Bibles. While some good computer security practices can mitigate some of the risk, the danger cannot be totally eliminated. Even encrypted messages reveal the nature of their purpose by the destination of those messages. And a data breach at the publisher could be fatal, even if the messages were securely delivered to the publisher.
  • Metric instrumentation of digital Bibles is creepy. Honestly, it is a form of spyware. I know of a couple of apps that do this, and I don’t use them for my regular Bible reading, because I have some really good non-creepy alternatives.
  • Counting the exact number of digital Bibles in actual use at any one time is nearly impossible, because they can be created (copied) and destroyed (deleted) in ways that I couldn’t see, even with metric instrumentation. How much more when the files are made to be easy to share with others, even without the use of the Internet, and when they don’t have metric instrumentation?
  • Why go through the effort when we already know that God’s Word will certainly do what He sent it to do? See Isaiah 55:11.
  • It seems vain to “brag” about Bible delivery statistics when my personal involvement is only a part of the whole process of translating and delivering the Holy Bible to people who need it.

Where is the balance point? I suppose that it would be different for different organizations involved in distributing digital Bibles. Some people aren’t concerned with delivering Bibles to creative access countries or areas with expensive Internet, so they would choose differently than I would. For me, I think the optimum point is to count the translations that are posted, which I do regularly at eBible.org/Scriptures/scorecard.txt, and to glean some useful aggregate information from the web server logs.

Being the mathematically-trained and linguistically-trained engineer that I am, I find many different ways to look at the data when counting. I also find that counting myself is too tedious and impossibly time-consuming. Therefore, I have my computer do the hard work. One program that counts Bibles creates an output named scorecard.txt.

There are several terms in scorecard.txt that could use some definition:

  • languages: ways of speaking (or writing), like Mandarin Chinese, English, and Russian, such that speakers of different languages can’t understand each other.
  • dialects: different varieties of the same language, such that people who speak different dialects of the same language can understand each other, sometimes with difficulty, like Texan English, Scottish English, and Indian English.
  • Bible translations: the Holy Bible written (or recorded) such that speakers of a given language can understand it. There can be multiple translations into the same language, like the New International Version, English Standard Version, and World English Bible. Most minority languages only have one translation, and often it is only the New Testament or another portion.
  • freely redistributable or open access: Bibles (or portions) that are either in the Public Domain (not copyrighted) or which are still covered by copyright but licensed under a Creative Commons or similar license that allows them to be shared freely. Sometimes that sharing is limited to noncommercial use, and sometimes it isn’t, depending on the specific license chosen by the copyright owner.
  • limited sharing: Bibles that are covered by copyright, and for which the copyright owner has granted only limited and very specific permission for distribution, usually just online only. These Bibles are useless in areas where offline access is essential. Such limits are almost always motivated by money concerns.

As I write this, we just reached 700 freely redistributable translations. Those are the the ones that allow the greatest obedience to the Great Commission, and which are available on multiple web sites and in multiple formats. These are available in formats that are easy to download and share with others. This is awesome, to my way of thinking. I hope the number of freely redistributable Bible translations grows greatly.

There are also some Bible translations that are available via online-only APIs from the American Bible Society’s BibleSearch and from Faith Comes by Hearing’s Digital Bible Platform. Both of these APIs contain Bibles that duplicate those which we have that are freely redistributable. (Of course. We share them when we are allowed to legally.) If you eliminate the duplicates, it comes to a little over 1,000 Bible translations available at Bible.cloud/study, which pulls in not only our 751 locally-served Bible translations but the ones that the APIs have but we don’t have locally.

For counting web traffic, I used to just rely on server logs plus common free programs to analyze the traffic. That yielded numbers of files, visits, and hits for each virtual server. It was a bit tedious to add these numbers up monthly, so I didn’t always do it. It was also hard to explain the relationship between those numbers and the actual Bible distribution going on. Server logs aren’t perfect, and usually get messed up when migrating web sites from one server to another, which happens from time to time. Still, it was an indication. Now, I have written a program (that I call logalyzer) that goes through our Bible web site server logs looking specifically for Bible file downloads and page views on Bible sites. Most page views on Bible sites are chapter views, but some are other things, like index pages, copyright/about pages, glossaries, etc. Note that some page views recorded are actually done by search engine bots as they index the site. These are actually welcome traffic, as they make it easier for people to find the Holy Bible in their language, even though those particular page views might not actually seen by a human. At the traffic volumes we see, search engine traffic is a reasonably small percentage of the total traffic. Anyway, this is where I’m getting Bible delivery statistics reported in our prayer letters, starting with the June 2016 count of 941,727 Bible downloads and 7,532,673 page views in our July 2016 prayer letter.

If that sounds impressive, please don’t be impressed with me. Be impressed with God, who makes all of this possible, and who loves everyone in the world enough to make all of this possible to help reach them with His message of love and forgiveness. Glory be to God!

Bible copyright licensing issues

Old Bible
Old Bible

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?