The Library Basement
Reading under ground

Tag Christianity and Copyright

Bible Licensing: The Realist

As time goes by, licensing terms on Bible translations seem to be getting less restrictive in general. I am making a hopeful prediction that we'll see a new major translation or revision released under a Creative Commons license before too long.

When it comes to choosing a license, I have an ideal choice which I would hope copyright holders would choose. However, I am not sure that the industry would be idealistically prepared for my choice. So I'll explain my thinking behind the motivating factors for Bible Society X before revealing my guess for the realistic Creative Commons license used for Bible Translation Y.

  • Bible Society X will want the text to be attributed to them when being transmitted.
  • They will also want to restrict "commerical" uses of the text, so that they can earn revenue by selling printed copies of the text as well as value-adds in print or digital distribution.
  • Bible Society X will not want to allow derivative works for two reasons. First, as a form of quality assurance they will want to be sure that Bible Translation Y is not disseminated with any unauthorized changes. Second, they will want to exclusively market and sell derivative like audio Bibles, commentaries, and the like.

Given these factors, I think it is most like that we'll see Bible Translation Y licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license. I would celebrate such a move nonetheless. A current Bible translation would be freed up for various uses by the church, and the copyright holders could still expect financial recompense for the money spent in producing the translation. Perhaps tomorrow I'll share my ideal. For those of you who are familiar with Creative Commons licenses, it should come as no surprise.

Using standard licenses for Bibles

It seems that Simon Cozens and I are fellow-travelers when it comes to our experiences with Bible licensing. I agree with Simon - more Bible copyright holders should license their work under "standard" licenses like Creative Commons. There have recently been some encouraging steps in the right direction in the world of Bible licensing, but each publisher seems to craft their own license (e.g. NET, SBLGNT, LEB, etc.). Each of these licenses has various provisions, some of which are confusing for end users. Yes, let's move forward with Bible copyright holders choosing freer, easier-to-implement licenses.

I found Cozens' post via Better Bibles Blog, which in its commentary included the following:

Let me just add that there isn’t a “one-size fits all” solution for Bible licenses. Some Bibles can and should be given away while others which have been produced at great financial expense need to recoup the investment.

Here you can see how the commercial model of financing Bible translations has become dominant. Bible translation need not be a cost-neutral, break-even endeavor. It need not be an investment which expects a return. Or rather, the return is not monetary. Christians gladly fund so much without any expectation of recouping an investment (or profits). The most prominent example is missionary work.

Bible translation should not be any different. We as a church translate the Bible as a necessary function of our discipleship, not because it is an "investment." We should be happy to pay up-front costs for the process. Once the need for "recouping" the costs is removed, it becomes easy to permissively license Bible texts. Let's avoid "the effect of tying down translations with excessively restrictive licenses" entirely.

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.

Christianity and Copyright (0): Paying for Christian scholarship

How do we pay for Christian scholarship? It is an important question. After all, we modern American English-speaking Christians (and this can apply to any nationality and language) depend upon scholars to translate and explain our scriptures. This is never-ending task due to the constant evolution of our languages. And we know from Jesus that "the worker deserves his wages." Scholarship is difficult, highly specialized, and time-consuming work? So how do we as Christians afford it?

I'll put forth the NIV and Biblica as an example funding model, since the translation is so popular. The NIV translation effort was started by the New York Bible Society in 1965. The project was so large that the bible society (and its various financial backers) had trouble paying for it. They even sold their historic headquarters for \$1 million to help pay for the effort. Sounds like a familiar tactic for Christian fundraising. However, the project was still short on funding. In 1971, Zondervan invested in the NIV translation effort by means of advanced royalty payments. In return, Zondervan was granted exclusive publishing rights in the United States. To make a long story short, the NIV became the world's best-selling English translation of the Bible and Zondervan reaped a substantial return on its investment.

So far as I can tell, this has become the standard model for financing translations (and many other products of Christian scholarship): a publisher pays advanced royalties in exchange for exclusive publishing rights. The concepts of "royalties" and "exclusive publishing rights" rely on copyright law. Content creators exercise their copyrights to prevent their work from being copied and redistributed by any unauthorized party (under threat of lawsuit and criminal penalties). In the case of Bible translations, the publishers have even extended fair use rights significantly in order to make it easier for churches and others to make use of their translations.

This is an incredibly effective and profitable business model for financing Christian scholarship. But there is a problem in this model's reliance upon copyright law. Due to the changes of the digital age, copyright law has a different ethical bearing on this subject than it did before. This has created two new problems. The first is practical and the second is ethical. I will be exploring each aspect of the problem and some solutions in a forthcoming series of posts.

Copyright revisited

In graduate school I began some thought and writing on the subject of Christianity and Copyright. That resulted in some interesting class and online discussions, and it has been an important topic to me ever since. Now a few years later I'd like to revisit the subject. I'll be republishing some of my earlier writings on the subject in revised and expanded form. This will give me space to reflect on any changes of opinion I may have had, as well as to address the positive changes which are coming about in the world of Bible licensing. Look for posts to follow.

SBL Greek New Testament Licensing

A lot has been said already about the SBL Greek New Testament text (SBLGNT) which has just been released. It is not every day that a new eclectic text is released. I think that what's just as noteworthy as the release itself is the license under which the text is distributed.

As has been discussed on the Open Scriptures mailing list, the license is fairly permissive, and allows for gratis distribution. In Creative Commons terms, it is essentially a Attribution/Non-commercial license. Actually the non-commercial part is qualified, because it is allowed in sold works under certain circumstances. There are a few curious features of the license I'd like to address.

Derivative Works?

The text of the license is silent on whether it is permissible to distribute modified copies of the SBLGNT. For example, am I allowed to "fork" the text and distribute it with my own changes? It's not clear to me from the license. The license does specifically disallow one type of derivative work (I'll discuss that below), so the implication is that derivative works are otherwise OK.

Reporting Requirement

One of the requirements for qualified commercial distribution is reporting:

If you give away the SBLGNT for use with a commercial product or sell a print or electronic work containing more than 500 verses from the SBLGNT, you must annually report the number of units sold, distributed, and/or downloaded to the Society of Biblical Literature’s Rights and Permissions Office.

This is not an overly harsh measure, in my opinion, and I can certainly understand why the require it. But ideally a license would have no reporting requirement. It's just a little extra burden.

English Diglots

As I mentioned above, the SBLGNT license has one prominent exception for redistribution: if you are going to distribute an English diglot, you need to obtain a separate license from SBL. Presumably this is because they are considering publishing their own English-Greek diglot. You can publish a diglot with other languages than English. I also wonder whether an edition with three or more languages including the SBLGNT and English are permissible. It is a bit of an odd stipulation for a license given that it is so particular, but it is not the worst thing in the world.


As I have written before, I think that the Christian scriptures should not have any copy restrictions placed on them. So I think it would be ideal for the SBLGNT text and apparatus to be released into the Public Domain. Barring that, I think I would recommend re-licensing under something like a Creative Commons Attribution/Non-commercial license which is a bit more established. That would iron out some of the ambiguities of the current license.

Here I've gone and looked the gift horse in the mouth. I am quite pleased by the release of the SBLGNT. Moreover, I think its license is one of the best available for a scriptural text. The permissive license instantly makes this text one of the most important available. It is definitely a step in the right direction. I believe we'll be working on getting the text imported into Open Scriptures before too long.

Open English Translation

I was recently made aware of the Open English Translation project. It is an endeavor to create a new English translation (actually, multiple translations in various forms) using openly documented formats and copy-friendly licenses. That is just another way of saying that it is right up my alley.

In addition to the translation project, Rob Hunt is seeking to shake up a few aspects of customary Bible publishing practice, including chapters and verses, chapter headings, terminology (e.g. Old and New Testament), and order of books. Rob has also chosen an interesting rubric for textual criticism:

Segments which are not included in the most ancient manuscripts will be removed from the inline text.

Well, this is not exactly up my alley, but that's OK.

I encourage anyone who is so inclined to lend a hand where needed to this project. This is exactly what Bible publishing needs, in my opinion. As I have written before, there are practical and ethical problems with publishing translations under restrictive licenses. The OET project is a concrete step in the right direction.

The benefits of free data

Efraim Feinstein's post "An Economic Argument for Free Primary Data" is definitely worth the read. He argues that freely licensed data best serves a community's needs because it reduces duplication of effort and therefore conserves resources. It is certainly true that many works have been digitized into proprietary formats many different times. This is similar to my argument about the practical problem of Christianity and Copyright: that copy restrictions make data less useful in the digital age. A discussion of this post on the Open Scriptures mailing list generated an interesting exchange questioning the applicability of "do not muzzle the ox" to copyright royalties. I've written on that issue in brief before, but I may flesh out my views on that in a longer post soon.

Inaccessible Scholarship

A while back Mike Aubrey brought up the plight of Buist Fanning's Verbal Aspect of New Testament GreekIt is \$240 per copy. That effectively makes it out of reach for everyone but libraries and the richest scholars. The reason it is so expensive is because it is published only as hardback and printed only on-demand. Aubrey has initiated a letter-writing campaign to get the work published in a more affordable form (paperback, or perhaps electronic). This is, of course, a laudible goal, because this work is very important for New Testament scholarship. I would take it a step further, though. It seems that Fanning is not at liberty to take his work to another publisher (I am sure many presses would be quite interested in his book). The reason for this is apparently the licensing terms which Oxford University places on its doctoral candidates' dissertations and monographs. I think this stands as an important warning for Christian scholars: If you want your work to be beneficial to others, you need to be careful about licensing terms.

Expensive scholarly works

Many published works of Christian scholarship are incredibly expensive to purchase. That and being in dead-tree form makes the data less useful to those whom it is intended to benefit. Ulrich Schmid expresses frustration:

Concerning the pricing of scholarly literature in Biblical studies it is time that scholars themselves start to think about their roles as content providers. It's not just that the books are so expensive, but all the work that goes into publishing such literature is basically done by the scholars as well. Sky-high prizing despite having the manuscripts delivered camera-ready is a situation that I am increasingly fed up with. What do other content providers think about that?

Maurice Robinson seems to have the same sentiment I do:

I seriously wonder what all the publishers of those ridiculously expensive limited-print volumes would do if the various scholarly writers (who often get little or no payment or royalty for such works) would eschew such costly publication formats, and get together to offer at a common website free PDF downloads of their camera-ready scholarly works. That way -- bypassing the print media entirely -- a wider audience could be had, even offering the material in printed hardback or paperback format through the various low-cost on-demand publishing entities such as Lulu or Lightning Source. Something to think about, certainly.

I would go farther than Robinson. I think the source files of the work should be distributed as well, since this makes the scholarship easier to convert for various uses. Also, I would ensure that the works are libre and not just gratis.