The Library Basement
Reading under ground

Christianity and Copyright (2): The Practical Problem

For many people, the shutdown of Zack Hubert's Greek website is the epitome of the practical problem of copyright restrictions on Christian texts. The website was well-known, well-used, and well-loved. It was ahead of its time. But it met its demise because the MorphGNT text upon which it relied was the subject of a German Bible Society takedown request due to copyright claims.† There was a tremendous loss felt by the users of this remarkable resource.

To sum up the practical problem of restrictive licensing, I'd say that it makes texts harder to work with and therefore less useful. When users have to worry about complicated licenses, fees, and the like, it makes it more difficult (or even expensive or risky) to utilize a particular text in its published form.

One of the assumptions I am working from here is that scholars create Bible texts and translations so that they can be utilized in the church. I think it is a safe assumption. People are not doing it for their own careers are for publishing royalties or any of that. They want their work to bear fruit in the church. So when license problems prevent a work from being used to its fullest potential, I think it is safe to assume that the content owner must be upset on some level.

License fees, terms of use, requests for permissions, and the like all contribute to making a work more difficult to use. Ease of digitization and data portability are key to creating Bible resources in the modern technological milieu. Most of the commonly used licenses for Bible texts make them difficult to use effectively in digital systems, without licensing fees paid to the publisher.

As an illustration of this, I'll point out that the Open Scriptures project only currently has importers written for public domain (KJV and Tischendorf) and permissively licensed (SBLGNT) texts. We do not have the UBS Greek or its apparatus, nor the NIV, because a license is required. (Fortunately the Open Scriptures api is being designed with a federated structure, so that people may choose to use the software to serve any text for which they have a license.)

Another practical problem that has arisen in the more permissively-licensed texts of late is the variety of license terms which have been applied to each work. For example, the SBLGNT, the Lexham English Bible, and the NET Bible each have (slightly) different terms which can make them confusing to work with. I would prefer that copyright holders use license families like Creative Commons, which are widely used and understood. Of course I do not want to diminish the contribution of these texts. Their licensing terms are absolutely a step in the right direction, but I think there is still room for improvement.

Restrictive copyright licenses make Bible texts difficult to use, especially in the digital age. If scholars would like their works to be useful, I encourage using a standard permissive license. This way the text can have the maximum benefit within the ministry of the church.

† I will address the moral issue of using restrictive licensing on Christian texts in the next post in this series. I also dispute that an eclectic text and textual apparatus reflecting ancient documents should be copyrightable. That opinion is informed not by legal expertise but by common sense. I will not be expanding on this point, however.