Love of Bible copyright is a root of all kinds of evil

David KerAt, 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.

0 thoughts on “Love of Bible copyright is a root of all kinds of evil

  1. David, my site seems to be working OK for me now, and quite a lot of people have been viewing it, I hope successfully. I have been out so wouldn’t have noticed any problems for the last few hours. But are you sure it was not a local problem at your end, or a very temporary one? Did you try refreshing the page as this sometimes reloads the CSS?

  2. Pingback: Bibles and Berne | futurebible

  3. David, on your new blog I have already hit one of the downsides of WordPress commenting, that it simply swallows comments it doesn’t like. Maybe it had good reason not to like a comment with three links in it, but it should warn the user as Posterous does. Please try to retrieve it from the junkyard.

  4. The law may offer copyright to an author but they do not have to accept it. They can place their work into the public domain completely, or they can claim copyright to prevent their work being changed, but still permit free duplication. In other words, it is not compulsory for an author to claim copyright if they don’t want to – it is their decision and it is not forced on them.

    On your last point, this is not the same situation as breaking the law to import bibles. The copyright in question would belong to Christians, who should be treated with respect by other Christians, even if the former were behaving in an unreasonable manner. I suppose you could have the situation where someone translated the Bible into a language and sold these Bibles at an inflated price, which may well be wrong, but two wrongs don’t make a right.

  5. Sidefall, I think your first point is about licensing rather than copyright. David Ker explains the distinction in his post.

    As for your point that Christians should respect the rights of other Christians, that is of course a good principle in most cases. But there should be limits to it when those who profess to be Christians use their rights or privileges to obstruct the preaching of the gospel. As I discussed in a post in 2007, this is what led John Wesley to defy the church authorities, and probably break the law of the land, by preaching in the fields of other clergy’s parishes. It is what is leading conservative Anglicans in North America to oppose the church hierarchy which is seeking to impose liberal practices on them, which is leading to many court battles. If these people are right, then surely Christians can also be right to break the copyright of Bible agencies who by their restrictive licensing policies are effectively depriving people groups of their access to the word of God.

  6. Peter, can you offer any examples of “Bible agencies who by their restrictive licensing policies are effectively depriving people groups of their access to the word of God” ?

  7. Sidefall, the kind of example I am thinking of is the one that David mentions, that of the Ndau Bible, where “a poorly resourced Bible society is unable to print sufficient copies”. David implies, but does not state explicitly, that this Bible society does not allow others to print the much larger quantities needed to meet the demand – see his explanation in an earlier post.

    I do also know of other specific cases at least in the past, which I could name but will not, in which a Bible agency was unable or unwilling to print sufficient copies of a Bible to meet the demand and definitely did not allow anyone else to print them. The issues here are not of opposition to Bible distribution but a combination of economic and organisational constraints, and there were also sometimes matters of governmental permission for printing and import. Nevertheless a more open licensing policy would have allowed the needed Bible copies to be printed and distributed.

  8. Peter, as per your directive, I will post here the essence of what I put on another thread.

    I realize this is not exactly the direction of the thread so far, but I think it does fit, as we see so many “new” translations recently.

    Can they all be right? It is a critical question for the person who sincerely wants to study the Bible.

    How can you get a copyright on a Bible? First of all, it must be significantly different from other translations. If it is different, which one is right? You might not notice the significance of the changes in a cursory reading, but if you exercise analytical thought, the differences become clear.

    The Church used copies of ms that were traceable back to the days of the Apostles. The KJV translators used those mss in their work. Later, Wescott and Hort came on the scene and used mss other than those of the received texts.

    The basis of their selection of the alternate texts was that those were older and in better condition. In fact, the alternate texts were older and in better condition, because the Church did not use them. I have several translations of the Bible. The one I use wears out, and the ones I don’t use much are pretty old but are in excellent condition.

    The alternate texts chosen by Wescott and Hort came through Alexandria, and the early Church, for the most part, refused to use them because they considered them corrupted.

    The received texts came through Antioch.

    So, if you use the KJV, you are reading an English copy of the received texts, and if you use a “new” translation, you are reading texts that the early Church refused.

    As far as I am aware, there are no new translations that are not based on the works of Wescott and Hort. Read them with caution.

  9. Galveston, do you have any evidence that anyone in any church rejected any of “The alternate texts chosen by Wescott and Hort”, before the rediscovery of some of them in the 19th century? The evidence suggests that some were lost accidentally and some continued to be preserved with honour. When writing materials are precious, high quality copies on good copy paper or whatever are kept safe while cheaper disposable copies are used on a daily basis.

    As for copyright, it is clear (despite the ridiculous claims of the German Bible Society) that no one can claim new copyright on the original text. But they can claim it on a version that is significantly different from an old one. This would of course exclude minor revisions.

  10. I never really knew what “Cast your bread upon the waters,
    for after many days you will find it again.” meant.
    But I’m sure it’s not something as mundane as ship your grain across the sea. They had words for “ship your grain across the sea” and would have used them.

  11. Mjazz, I’m not at all convinced by “ship your grain across the sea”. But don’t forget that this is poetry. So if the author was intending to recommend investing in international trade, he would not have used the most mundane words to express what he meant. The next verse, Ecclesiastes 11:2 in NIV 2011, in fact ties up rather well with David Wilkerson’s prophecies which we were discussing elsewhere:

    Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight;
    you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.

  12. That’s a good point, Peter.
    Galveston, I thought the “King James only” crowd were being myopic, but I recently read an article in a Baptist publication which compared a number of passages in the newer versions with those of the KJV. There were some very significant differences.

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