There are practical and ethical problems with using copyright law to restrict the copying and distribution of the Bible and other Christian texts, study materials, and music. This mode of financing is still predominant among Bible publishers. However, I am much more optimistic now than I was when I first started writing about this issue in 2008. There have been a lot of positive developments, and I believe that the momentum in Bible punishment is behind permissively-licensed texts. This is good for everyone.
Our story begins with the venerable NET Bible, which has actually been around for quite a while. The NET’s licensing terms are somewhat restrictive and confusing, but were nonetheless a far sight more permissive than anything else available at the time of its release. The NET Bible was a bold and deliberate step in the right direction, and it is no accident that it coincided with the rise of the world wide web. From the preface:
We don’t like the copyright notice on the second page of the NET Bible, but we don’t yet know the best way to fix it. The reason for this dilemma is that we stand at the beginning of a new era made possible by the Internet. New approaches to ministry, publishing, distribution, and collaboration are made possible by the Internet. When the first Bibles and books began to be printed rather than copied by hand, new issues emerged (plagiarism, author’s rights, freedom of the press versus censorship, copyright laws, etc.). It is now time to recognize that the copyright and permissions conventions carried over from printed books must now be upgraded for the Internet age.
I believe it is fair to say that since the time that preface was written, the new era of online copyright licenses pined for has come about. There is a lot more infrastructure to support freely-licensed works in the internet age.
While the NET Bible got the ball rolling, other Bible resources have been building momentum of late. Logos Bible Software has published the Lexham English Bible and the Society of Biblical Literature Greek New Testament (SBLGNT) under fairly permissive licenses. I do have some minor gripes about these licenses, but I find the SBLGNT development particularly encouraging given the frustrating history of copyright issues surrounding modern eclectic editions of the Greek New Testament.
Even in cases where texts have a more traditional licenses (and by traditional I mean “similar to the NIV”) there have been positive developments. Many publishers are permitting or creating their own excellent web interfaces to their texts, so that anyone with an internet connection can read them on demand. Furthermore some have created public APIs, making it so their texts can be integrated into third-party applications. The ESV is a pioneer in this regard.
Yes, now is an exciting time for Christianity and Copyright, but there is still more progress to be made. On the whole, I’d like to see these efforts toward more permissive licensing and accessibility become more unified and standardized. To that end I have previously suggested that content publishers ought to use the already-established Creative Commons suite of licenses. There is no point in recreating the wheel, and I am skeptical that the terms of all these custom licenses are truly necessary. Using a standard group of easily-understood licenses makes it easier for people to understand how they can make use of the work.
In the realm of online applications and interoperability, I’d like to see more moves toward a standard data interchange format as well as a common API for accessing Bible data on the web. This will make newly-liberated texts easier to make use of in modern technologies. Work is already being done on this front, and I believe it will come to fruition.
Additionally I would like to see this spirit of openness spread to other works of Christian scholarship and culture. Worship music, academic texts, journal articles, devotionals, and the like should be freely licensed just like the Bible. It it is not a big stretch to apply the same arguments I put forth concerning the scriptures to other matters of Christian culture.
I am quite optimistic about Christianity and Copyright. The current legacy of restrictive copyrights results mostly from publisher-financed translation and fear of change. Christians intrinsically agree that the Bible should be freely-licensed. The only reason restriction has been tolerated is to raise funds, but that is no longer necessary. We are at a temporary impasse, and I think the age of limited quotation to 250 verses will be only a brief memory in the history of the church.
There is yet a lot of work to do. Anyone can help out, by petitioning copyright holders to change their licenses, by licensing their own work permissively, and by participating in projects which make sharing of the scriptures easier. By creating new works and pressuring the rights holders of existing works to change their stance, it will not be long until there is a very fertile ecosystem of freely-licensed Bibles and other Christian works. That is a time to which I am looking forward.