Copyrighting the Word of God 2

In part 1 of this series I discussed the demise of Re:Greek and because the text they were based on is copyrighted by the German Bible Society. In this post I discuss the issue of whether it is possible, or right, for anyone to claim copyright over the original text of the Bible.

I note first that this is an issue only for the New Testament, because the UBS Greek text (the UBS 4th edition which is essentially the same as the Nestle-Aland 27th edtion) is an eclectic text, with readings chosen by a committee of scholars (Barbara and Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger) who have presumably assigned their copyright to the German Bible Society.

By contrast, in the German Bible Society’s edition of the Hebrew Bible, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, which is also the recognised scholarly edition, the basic text is simply copied from the Leningrad Codex manuscript which is out of copyright. So others are free to publish an identical text as long as it is derived directly from the Codex. Indeed, at least one other group has done so, at Westminster Theological Seminary, with the results being online as the Westminster Leningrad Codex with a Creative Commons licence. Sadly it is not possible to do quite the same to reproduce the UBS Greek New Testament text.

It is nearly two years since I last discussed copyright on this blog, and when I did so I did not refer to the biblical text. I stand by what I wrote there, and so I agree in part with David Ker’s position, that we should respect the rights of scholars as well as artists to protect and make a living from their own work. I also agree that we shouldn’t do anything to undermine the support which the larger western Bible societies provide to Bible translation and distribution projects worldwide. Nevertheless I agree with the thrust of Tim Bulkeley’s “oversimplification” (his word):

If GBS (or any other Bibe Society) restricts people making the text freely available, simply to protect the economic viability of their print editions – which are expensive to produce luxury items – then they are betraying the generations of Christians who have coughed up their hard earned cash “to make the Bible available”!

So, what of the principle of copyrighting the Bible? I note Vern Poythress’ theological discussion of copyright, in which he argues for a right to copy others and that “restricting copying interferes with loving one’s neighbor”. This provides justification for Tim Bayly’s assertion that

no one and no corporation and no non-profit organization should ever be allowed to hold a copyright on any text of Scripture for anything other than assuring the integrity of the text they worked to produce.

Tim Bayly has also, in an earlier post, demonstrated the absence of any proper legal basis, at least under US law, for any claims of copyright on compilations and selections of material where there is no originality or creativity. The principles explained there surely apply to the work of the scholarly compilers of the UBS Greek text, which is by its very intention the opposite of their own creative and original work: it is to restore the original 1st century text.

Now I accept that the textual apparatus in the UBS Greek New Testament, i.e. the discussion of variant readings, is original work and so can be copyrighted. But the matter at issue with Re:Greek and others is main text which is separate from the apparatus.

I can imagine the German Bible Society being asked in court to show places where their text is actually original in the sense of being different from any previously existing public domain text. The only places they could potentially point out are where they have actually failed to do their job!

The situation is different with a Bible translation because it is accepted that the work of translation is original and creative. So there is a legal basis for new Bible translations being copyrighted, which does not apply to new editions of original language Bible texts, nor for that matter of public domain Bible translations. Nevertheless Tim Bayly seems to consider copyright claims on Bible translations to be immoral, if not illegal, although he does allow that publishers should be allowed to charge royalties until such time as their investment in the translation process has been recouped.

To summarise my own position, I would agree with Vern Poythress that there is no moral justification for restricting copying of one’s work of any kind. Yes, I need to respect and obey the existing law, but that does not make it right for me to rely on its protection of my own work. While I understand people’s desires to protect their own genuinely creative work, it seems to me morally repugnant to claim copyright over mere compilations and arrangements of the work of others, and especially so when that work is the written word of God.

On the issue of profitability, I note that most of the profit in marketing biblical texts in the original and in translation is from annotated and study editions. The notes of whatever kind in these editions are usually creative or original and so can quite properly be copyrighted, if any text can. I also note that the free availability of an online text generally tends to promote rather than reduce sales of print editions. So it is highly unlikely that there will be a real threat to any publisher’s income from making a Bible text freely available.

So I call on the German Bible Society and all others claiming copyright over texts and translations of the Bible to renounce those copyright claims and make their work freely accessible to all who have a need for it.

But I note that things are changing, if only slowly. The Institute for New Testament Textual Research at the University of Münster, Germany, which was founded by Kurt Aland, is working on the Digital Nestle-Aland which is:

the forthcoming electronic version of the standard scholarly edition of the Greek New Testament. It offers two major features not available in the printed book:

  • Transcripts of important Greek manuscripts of the New Testament
  • New complete apparatus based on these transcripts

– and on the Editio Critica Maior which is the next generation of the Greek New Testament text. In a discussion on copyright nearly three years ago at Evangelical Textual Criticism P.J. Williams seemed to offer hope that the Editio Critica Maior would be free of copyright restrictions, but it will be some time before this text is complete. On that matter I think we need to wait and see.

But the decade or so before this edition is completed is too long to wait for wider access to the current UBS Greek text. I hope that the Bible societies will see sense on this. Perhaps other Bible societies will pressure the German one to release the text to undo the damage that the current controversy is doing to their image, and potentially to their income. As I wrote in the previous post, they need to decide whether they are going to rely for their income on dubious business practices or on the generosity of God’s people.

0 thoughts on “Copyrighting the Word of God 2

  1. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Copyrighting the Word of God 1

  2. Pingback: Copyrighting the Word of God 2 | Office Claims

  3. I think that the Word of God should not be bound (restricted) by worldly rules. All the Scriptural writings and their true translations should not be subject to the copying restrictions of copyright. Even translations by scholars should be able to be used freely, subject to the user acknowledging the writer(s)’s intelectual input. Where a scholar or student writes creatively on a part of the Holy Scripture, this writing can be recognised in the maner above. The Word of God belongs to God, mankind are only the users. Maybe more emphasis should be brought to bear on the recognition of the intelectual properties of one’s written work rather than putting a blanket copying ban on work derived from the Holy Scriptures.

  4. I should perhaps declare an interest in the Westminster Hebrew text. I was a little surprised to be notified today that this text, the standard scholarly electronic text of the Hebrew Bible, has been modified in response to a submission I made! In 2003, at a time when I was looking into such things, I discovered and reported an error in the pointing of the tenth word in 1 Samuel 6:17, the word ‘echad accented with zaqef qatan (following BHS) when the accent in the original Leningrad Codex is geresh. Today I learned that the error has been corrected, at least for the next release of the morphologically analysed text, which will presumably find its way into the standard software packages in due course. This is not the first such error which I found that has been corrected, but I still find it gratifying!

  5. Stan Gundry of Zondervan, in his own comment on a post which is mostly written by him, while not entirely agreeing with me on these issues, confirms that the critical text is not protected by copyright in the USA:

    I am not a copyright attorney myself, but I have had lengthy phone conversations with a lawyer who is credited with being the best in the USA. Here’s the deal, at least according to USA copyright law. Ancient texts such as those we are dealing with in the OT (Hebrew/Aramaic) and NT (Greek) are in the public domain and are not protected by copyright. In fact (and this is controversial), even the critical texts as reconstructed by textual critics cannot be protected by enforceable copyrights.

  6. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Original Bible text cannot be copyrighted, US copyright attorney says

  7. I’m disappointed in your two posts on this for a number of reasons but don’t have the time or energy to get into all of it. However, I will comment on this:

    “I can imagine the German Bible Society being asked in court to show places where their text is actually original in the sense of being different from any previously existing public domain text. The only places they could potentially point out are where they have actually failed to do their job!”

    This strikes me as particularly tendentious for someone who it appears out to know better. While I have no idea about German–or any other–copyright law, is it not true that the complete UBS/NA text NEVER existed as a COMPLETE text until the production of the UBS/NA text? You can obviously find readings in various mss for everything, true. While it may be that, technically (perhaps legally?), their text is pieced together from existing sources, it is also certainly true that there was extensive original work in its production. Further, the text as a WHOLE is original, unless you are prepared to claim that the UBS/NA text represents the originals with 100% accuracy, something the producers do not claim (your snark that they’re then defending their errors is, again, tendentious). So, it seems to me that, at best, for you to allude otherwise is naive or, at worst, dishonest. You are making strong moral claims about UBS. It seems to me the one on the moral crusade should be much more careful in his or her arguments, no?

    At any rate, if you want a free text, you are, of course, permitted one. Simply fund and produce your own critical edition and then give it away. Whatever the costs and moral issues involved, I’ve no doubt you’d find it much more expensive and prohibitive than you ever imagined (meanwhile, I seriously doubt you are qualified to actually know what UBS is doing, morally, as opposed to presenting mere conjecture. At least nothing here indicates otherwise and I find that deeply troubling).

    While I’m getting in a habit of making too long of responses on this issue, you also appear dishonest in the previous post on this issue. The NA text is available freely online at the DBG website, as you note. Your complaint was that the site was in German (your rant about German scholarship is unfounded). While, again, this is absolutely true, is it not also true that there is no morphology with the text? It is a straight text. You don’t need German. You simply need to know Greek. Yet you made it sound like some special knowledge is hidden behind the veil of a language nobody even speaks or understands anymore (you’ve not looked at Ph.D. requirements much, have you?). There is nothing you need there from the German! All you have is the UBS/NA text! I can’t believe you’re not aware of that, yet you implied DBG was doing something nefarious . . .

    Again, however, if you want your free text, it’s there on their site. Just go there and print it off (bring lots of paper). Then you won’t be troubled by what the German words are hiding from you.

    Finally, given Paul’s injunction in 1 Corinthians, why would you sue the Bible Societies or indicate the approval of a suit (or maybe just gleefully imagine one?)? You are citing Poythress in an attempt to justify the claim that somehow UBS is sinning for taking a copyright (I disagree with Poythress here but that’s nothing new). In appearing to advocate a suit, are you not doing the same? Did not Paul say to suffer the wrong? Whence all the righteous indignation?

    Again, if you are going to make the bold claims that you’re making, it seems to me that it is up to you to a) make better arguments rather than what appears too often to be veiled emotional appeals lacking evidence and b) make sure your argument is above reproach. To my eyes, you have done neither.

    I am in no way nor have ever been affiliated with the Bible Societies, though I did win an award from them some years ago.

  8. Roy, I know there was a lot of work in the production of the UBS Greek NT, but I am not sure how much of it was original. The original work of pioneers like Tischendorf and Westcott and Hort is out of copyright. The hard work of later scholars in collating manuscripts is laborious but largely mechanical. It is of course for the courts to decide exactly what counts as creative, but as I noted in my follow-up post a top copyright lawyer holds that it is not.

    I have no idea what kind of text is on the GBS site because I was unable to find it, even though I do know some German. But how do I find the text? Do you have a direct URL for it? All I was given is a front page which is entirely in German, with no mention on that page in any language of the UBS text. Do you have a link to an English or Greek version of the GBS site? How would knowing Greek help me to find this text?

    Knowing German may or may not be a requirement for Ph.D. students, but that is irrelevant. The text of the Bible is not the private property of a self-perpetuating clique of scholars, but of the whole church and the whole world.

    I am not proposing or approving any lawsuit against the GBS. But I do call on them to follow the spirit of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians (and also about labourers being worthy of their hire) by renouncing any reliance on the worldly principle of copyright and the implicit legal sanctions behind it.

    I do know more about the internal workings of UBS than I have mentioned here. I personally know several UBS translation consultants and other senior staff. I am not writing this with their approval.

  9. Paul, thank you for giving this direct link. I continue to object that this is a German language only site. If the United Bible Societies are serious in their attempts to make the Bible text available to all they should also publish the site in their major international languages, i.e. English, French, Spanish and probably Russian. Otherwise we can’t help thinking that they intend the original to be available only to a small scholarly elite.

  10. I am not completely sure, in detail, how exactly the laws of copyright work in the U.S. (I’m not sure anyone knows for certain what U.S. law is until it is tested in court–even the Supreme Court frequently issues split decisions.) I also do not know the motives of the United Bible Societies. Perhaps they are nothing but good-hearted people trying to spread the gospels, or perhaps they are simply trying to lock up ancient texts and exploit God’s people. I do not know.

    But, based on the studies I have done of the Internet, Copyright law, and human nature, I am pretty sure where this is leading. Whether right or wrong, the UBS is shutting down access at a time when access to other texts is becoming ever easier. Thanks to Bible software packages such as e-Sword and the SWORD Project, millions of people are able to access unrestricted Greek texts, putting the United Bible Societies at a severe disadvantage.

    An example of this sort of thing is the 2005 Byzantine Textform of the Greek New Testament, published by Maurice Robinson and William Pierpont. Their text has become one of the leading texts in the internet age, because they have provided it freely to the public and do not restrict it. In addition, their methodology is better defined and more reliable than the methods used in constructed the UBS text. Gradually, those who restrict use of the Bible will only make themselves irrelevant in the long term.

    Mitchell Powell,

  11. Thank you, Mitchell. I disagree with you about the superiority of the Byzantine text, which is manifestly full of changes introduced, often for theologically sectarian reasons, during the Byzantine period. But I agree with you that by restricting access to their text the UBS is doing about the best it could do to ensure that it loses the battle for the priority of the scholarly text. Part of the problem may be that UBS now includes Eastern Orthodox scholars who insist on the Byzantine text. So perhaps there is no longer the commitment there used to be to the scholarly position.

  12. Pingback: More on “copyright” of the Greek New Testament at Roger Pearse

  13. Pingback: The electronic Bible shouldn't only be for a privileged few - Gentle Wisdom

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To prove you're a person (not a spam script), type the security word shown in the picture. Click on the picture to hear an audio file of the word.
Anti-spam image