The Library Basement
Reading under ground

Christianity and Copyright (1): Publishing Technology

In the course of considering Christianity and Copyright, I think it is important to point out that advances in publishing technology make a difference in the ethical and practical facets of this topic. I do not think that copyright restrictions on the scriptures were wholly excusable previously. However, the advent of computers and the internet worsens the problems associated with enforcing copyright.

There are three basic periods in the history of the transmission of the scriptures. The first is hand-written. It took a tremendous amount of effort to copy the Bible, and you only received one copy for your efforts. Copying was time-consuming, expensive, and subject to errors. Then came the printing press. Typesetting a Bible for the first time was very time-consuming, but the effort was rewarded with an unlimited number of copies. The text was consistent between each copy. Now we are in the digital age. Translations are typically composed digitally, so there is no transcription process. Unlimited copies can be distributed instantly virtually anywhere in the world without any further effort on the part of the translators or publishers.

The advent of copyright law was in the age of the printing press. The purpose of copyright was to encourage new publishing while at the same time rewarding the time and effort it took to create and typeset works. Authors and publishers were given a 14-year monopoly in which they had exclusive rights to publish their work. This way they could recoup their investments. At the same time, in order to have continuing publishing success, new works would have to follow. (There is plenty of space for comment on the endless expansion of the term of copyright, but not in this series of posts). Copyright law provided a new way to monetize publishing.

The digital revolution put some interesting pressure on copyright, particularly in the case of the scriptures. Since the biblical authors are long gone, what we had been paying the publishers for in the age of the press was the translation and the physical copy of the Bible. That copyright restrictions were placed was not a great hindrance for Christians, since it was much easier and cheaper to purchase a copy of the work from the publisher than to make one's own copy. However, now that copying and distributing texts is arbitrarily easy, the copyright restrictions which were once benign are now burdensome.

In the next post, I'll explain some of the practical problems with placing copyright restrictions on the Bible. It is useful for raising funds for scholarship, but it gets in the way of using the biblical texts in new and creative ways.