Viral Bible Distribution

Digital Bibles
Bible translations in various languages on different devices

Viral Bible distribution is my favorite way to get the Holy Bible to the most people with the lowest cost, least hassles, and best coverage of the world’s most challenging areas.

What is Viral Bible Distribution?

Viral Bible distribution gets its name from the concept of viral sharing of something via social media, but in our case, the sharing is via any network or medium, and normally via a combination of those. The people sharing can be any of the end users, as well as other publishers, Bible app developers, other web sites, etc. Viral Bible distribution can include normal web sites, printing, and book sales, but unlike conventional Bible distribution, it is not an exclusive monopoly on distribution of any given translation. Unlike a biological virus, which causes sickness, or a computer virus, which wreaks havoc, viral distribution happens with something people like. In this case, it is the life-giving, healing Word of God that gets passed around from person to person  and device to device. The beauty of sharing digital Bibles is that you can give away as many copies as you like, and you still have your copy. So can everyone who has a copy. This sets up the conditions necessary for exponential growth.

How Does Viral Bible Distribution Differ from Conventional Bible Distribution?

Conventional Bible distribution consists of selling or giving away printed Bibles (or portions thereof) or directly selling or giving access from a limited number of digital distribution platforms (such as web sites or Bible study apps). Secondary distribution and sharing is not allowed, as that could possibly reduce the copyright owner’s monetary income. The legal monopoly granted by copyright law is enforced and relied on to maximize monetary gain for the copyright owners. Royalties are usually required as a condition of distribution, sometimes even the distribution is done at or below cost of production. Conventional Bible distribution is the tradition for the major commercial Bible translations, which are often managed as a source of money income, either for profit or for funding of nonprofit activities.

Viral Bible distribution consists of anyone who wants to selling, sharing, or giving Bibles from an unlimited number of platforms using an unlimited number of distribution methods and an unlimited number of formats. A key cornerstone of viral distribution is peer-to-peer sharing, but viral Bible distribution also includes sharing among large and small publishers. Although Bibles can still be sold this way, sales are never exclusive, and competition is allowed. Where copyrights are still in effect, licenses are granted to explicitly permit this. A lesser form of viral Bible distribution can happen when unlimited sharing is restricted to noncommercial use of the text only, although such restrictions tend to have a chilling effect on print distribution. In viral Bible distribution, the primary purpose is to get the Scriptures distributed and in use, and funding requirements for the costs associated with Bible distribution and related activities are met by other means, such as donations, unrelated business income, and sales which do not rely on having a legal monopoly to be successful.

What are the Advantages of Viral Bible Distribution?

  • Economy. There is no need to establish and maintain point of sale controls, digital rights restriction management (DRM), royalty accounting systems, etc., when digital copies are intentionally given away and shared freely. The burden of the cost of distribution is spread out over a multitude of people. The cost of making a copy of a digital file is very small, indeed. The peer-to-peer sharing ability is especially important in places with limited or expensive Internet access.
  • Scalable capacity. No one person or organization needs to do it all. Parallel distribution, web site mirrors, peer-to-peer sharing, additional publishers and app developers, etc., all contribute to increasing capacity as needed to meet the demand.
  • Persecution resistance. Since translations of the Holy Bible in viral distribution are found in so many places and formats, and since any one of those can be copied to all who want it, it just takes one copy to get inside of a censored area, and it can spread throughout that region. Censoring a small, fixed number of web sites or centrally-distributed apps is easy for some governments. Censoring a constantly-changing landscape of new web sites and tiny, easily-hidden files that can easily be copied is hard. Missing one can mean it gets re-copied a million times before it is found again. Finding them all is nearly impossible.
  • Maximum distribution. Viral Bible distribution can reach people who are excluded by conventional Bible distribution, such as those who are unable or unwilling to pay the higher prices, people in persecuted areas, small scale web site and Bible study application developers who don’t have the resources necessary to engage in conventional Bible distribution. Since the main goal of viral Bible distribution is to reach as many people as possible with God’s Word, without regard to monetary gain, there is no hesitation to provide free access to digital copies and inexpensive access to printed copies without worries about how that might possibly affect sales.
  • Love. When the Greatest Book, which tells of the Greatest Love of God, is offered freely to people who need to know God’s love, in fulfillment of the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, it communicates love far better than trying to sell it like just another book.

What are the Disadvantages of Viral Bible Distribution?

  • Fear of lack. For viral Bible distribution to be sustainable, there must be some way for the entire work of Bible translation and publication to be funded. There are still many ministries, even those who are nonprofit ministries, who operate financially basically the same as a for-profit publishing house, using monopoly sales of translations of the Holy Bible as their main source of income. For them, especially, shifting to non-monopoly, competitive sales combined with freely giving away digital copies would require development of new income streams, such as donations, sales of premium editions of the Holy Bible, sales of other books and merchandise, etc. Several ministries have gone through that transition, and it can be done, but it goes against human nature to let go of one source of supply to gain another one, even if the other one is arguably better.
  • Distribution control issues. Some might say this is an advantage, but for copyright owners who had an expectation that they would be able to control and know exactly where, how, and by whom a Bible translation is distributed, and it what contexts, this could be a scary thought. I was told once by the head of global publishing services for a major Bible ministry that he didn’t want any of his Bibles distributed if they couldn’t be counted and reported. I think it is because even though he was willing to give away copies of Bible translations, he wanted to take full credit for each of those copies given so that donors would know how much they have sponsored in terms of Bible distribution. In other words, even freely-given copies of the Bible are tied to money in some people’s minds.
  • Text control issues. Some viral-friendly distribution licenses allow changes to the text, and some do not. Still, even with a license that prohibits text changes, some copyright owners are hesitant to let go, possibly due to confusion or not being sure of what might happen.

How Do We Overcome These Disadvantages?

Have faith in God. We trust God for our financial needs. We trust God to provide through donations, other work, and in various creative ways. We give the control of the distribution of the text and safeguarding of His Bible to God. For this to work, you really have to believe that God has called you to do it. For myself, I have that conviction.

Use digital signatures. Cryptographically signing Bible translations provides tamper-evident seals to provide assurance that the text has not been altered after it was signed by a trusted author.

Consider time. Note that all Bible translation copyrights expire eventually, and when they do, conventional monopoly distribution is not an option, anyway.

Understand our environment. We are getting closer to Jesus’ return. Technology keeps making new things possible and some old things impossible. Conventional printing house thinking does not work well in a world where book distribution is shifting to digital and print-on-demand any more than a film photography business works in a digital photography world. Selling audio Bibles on 8-track tapes would be an extreme example of how not to do things, but the astute observer will also recognize new opportunities to do much better with current and coming technology.

How Do We Do Viral Bible Distribution?

Actually, most of what encourages viral Bible distribution is stopping doing what stops or discourages it. Viral Bible distribution is what naturally happens in response to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission among believers. In practical terms, this means:

  • Remove legal barriers to copying existing Bible translations. This requires the cooperation of the copyright owner/steward of a copyrighted Bible translation. Note that ALL Bible translations are copyrighted by default, even if the translators had no intention of copyrighting them, took no action to do so, and made no copyright notice, just as soon as they are fixed in a tangible form (written on paper or in a digital format). Therefore, the current best practice is to attach a license that freely allows copying, even for commercial use, or dedicate the work to the Public Domain. If the copyright owner chooses not to do this, then the alternative is to wait until the copyright expires, which may take up to about 120 years.
  • Take advantage of existing Public Domain Bible translations. The original Bible manuscripts and many Bible translations are in the Public Domain (not copyrighted) due to copyright expiration. These can be legally distributed virally by anyone anywhere without any permission or royalties required. Copyright expiration is an excessively complex issue due to the number of laws and treaties involved and the way those have changed over time. The best explanation of what is in the Public Domain is in this document maintained by Cornell University.
  • Create new Bible translations with viral-friendly licenses. This may be a costly option, but when there are significant portions of a language group left in Bible poverty due to copyright restrictions that will last at least another decade, or because there is no adequate Bible translation in a language, this is the best option. People are starting to do this on a large scale. See unfoldingword.Bible.
  • Remove technical barriers to copying. The first part of this is easy: don’t do the for-profit publisher thing with Digital Rights (Restriction) Management (DRM). The second part is a little more subtle. Design and create formats that people can easily copy peer-to-peer with existing and new technologies. This may include embracing open standards like epub, existing book reader formats, like Amazon Kindle .mobi, and existing Bible study app Bible formats. It may also include creation of new apps and Scripture app builders. It helps to automate the conversion to a variety of formats, so that many formats can be distributed, and users can work out which are their favorites, and share those.
  • Distribute quality Bible translations. Obviously, those Bible translations with the greatest acceptance by Christians are the ones those same Christians will more enthusiastically read, listen to, and share.
  • Use quality presentation. By paying attention to details that make a Bible translation pleasant to look at, read, search, study, and share, it becomes more likely that people will develop a healthy Bible reading habit themselves, as well as sharing with others.
  • Tap pure funding sources. One of the best sources of funding is donations from like-minded Christians who understand the value of God’s Word in transforming people’s lives, changing their eternal destination to the Kingdom of Heaven. This source takes minimal time from direct viral Bible distribution activities and is not likely to result in inappropriate pressure or conflicts of interest that other sources could possibly involve. We may be giving away the Bible for free, but it is far from free to do so. Only together with financial partners can we be effective in this ministry.
  • Pray and listen to God. We are engaged in spiritual warfare. We can’t do this without intercession, our own prayers, and meditating on God’s Word ourselves.