In part 1 of this series I discussed the demise of Re:Greek and zhubert.com 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.