At futurebible.org, one of his many blogs, David Ker has written an interesting post Bible copyrights are not evil. At least I assume he is the author, as this is his blog and the style is familiar. But the Posterous post is formally anonymous (although the version on the feed has his name on it), which casts serious doubt on his claim
But once I publish it, I as the author am automatically granted copyright of my own work without doing anything else.
Anyway I think this depends on which national law applies. Is he referring to the law of South Africa where he lives, or of the USA of which he is a citizen? Also this applies only to original work, and not to republication of an existing work that is out of copyright, such an original language Bible text.
David’s main point is that within our legal systems copyright exists, whether we like it or not, and that this applies to Bible translations as much as to any other works. This seems to be the basis for his argument that Bible copyright is not evil. Now that is clearly a non sequitur. There are many things which exist in our world, including some which are sanctioned by our legal system, which are evil. I doubt if David would argue that apartheid in his adopted country was not evil because it was established by law. So something existing and being legal does not imply that it is not evil.
But I am not trying to argue that copyright is evil. I see it as rather like money. Despite the common Bible misquotation, money is not the root of all evil. Rather,
the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.
1 Timothy 6:10 (NIV 2011)
Similarly I would suggest that in itself copyright is not evil, but, especially in relation to the Bible, love of copyright can be a root of all kinds of evil.
Copyright, like money, has its positive and beneficial uses, some of which David mentions. It means that any text has a specific owner – but that is a problem if that owner is unknown or uncontactable. It offers some kind of protection against unauthorised changes to works, whether deliberate or accidental. And it helps authors to get a reasonable income from their creative efforts. But it also has a serious negative uses, such as when it is used to restrict the distribution of information and scholarship or to make unreasonable profits.
David writes about the commendable attitude of many Bible publishers who, while continuing to name themselves as copyright holders, have open policies towards their work being republished and distributed widely. But, as he notes, sadly this is not true of all who publish Bibles, in translation and in the original languages. Some seem to want to claim exclusive rights for everything, even when their claims are patently ridiculous. They may justify their attitude by appealing to their need to protect their income from book sales and royalties, but perhaps they need to learn that generosity encourages generosity and stinginess begets stinginess. The Preacher wrote:
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for after many days you will find it again.
Ecclesiastes 11:1 (NIV 1984)
(For once I prefer the more traditional rendering of the 1984 NIV; the 2011 rendering “Ship your grain across the sea…” may be exegetically justified but doesn’t fit my purpose here.)
If this applies to literal bread (or grain), how much more does it apply to the food which truly sustains (Matthew 4:4), in printed or electronic form, and to the resources needed to distribute it!
The laws on copyright are man-made traditions. That does not make them bad. But when professing Christians use them to obstruct the commands of God, such as to teach and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20), they are surely subject to the same kind of condemnation which Jesus directed at the scribes and Pharisees:
He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
7 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’
8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
9 And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! … 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”
Mark 7:6-9,13 (NIV 2011)
Brother Andrew and Open Doors became famous for smuggling Bibles into Communist countries, and by doing so breaking the laws of those countries. I believe that they argued that the imperative of bringing the gospel to their peoples takes precedence over the general Christian obligation to be subject to governments (Romans 13:1). Should the same apply in the case of copyright? Where copyright holders are being unreasonably restrictive, would it be right for Christians to publish and distribute their materials without permission, so that the gospel may be preached without restriction and believers receive the biblical teaching that they need? I welcome any discussion here.