Original Bible text cannot be copyrighted, US copyright attorney says

This post was originally a comment on my previous post about copyright. I have decided to make it a separate post because of its importance, and have added the last part, after the quote.

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  of the Greek New Testament, and the Hebrew Bible, 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.

This is indeed good news. It means that, at least in the USA, the German Bible Study does not have a leg to stand on to in its refusal to allow MorphGNT and Re:Greek to use the UBS Greek New Testament text.

I am tempted to compare this issue with the attempts, which backfired, of Mark Brewer to stifle debate about the former SPCK bookshops – a saga which is continuing, and still being documented by Phil Groom. The comparison is not entirely fair because the German Bible Society has not taken the same kind of active role that Mark Brewer took in demanding that material was removed from the Internet. Nevertheless I think they will find, just as Mark Brewer did, that their restrictions on the availability of their text will backfire on them.

I have a complete electronic copy of the UBS Greek New Testament 4th edition text. I will not publish it myself not least because the copyright position here in the UK is not as clear as in the USA. But I see no reason not to provide this text to people in the USA for them to use as they please.

The latest on the former SPCK bookshops

Over a month ago I wrote about the former SPCK bookshops and blogger Dave Walker’s response to a Cease and Desist letter. Since then there has been silence on this matter from Dave Walker, perhaps for legal reasons and perhaps because he was just too busy with the Lambeth Conference and then a holiday to give more time to this.

But there has been plenty of activity from others around the blogosphere, not just from the normal small circle of Christian blogs but from heavyweights like Matt Wardman who are concerned with the implications of what has happened for freedom of speech. Phil Groom’s SPCK/SSG blog has remained the best place to keep up with this matter, and has lots of links to what other people have been writing. Most of the actiivity was in late July, but there has been a steady trickle of new information through August. I salute Phil and also Essex vicar Sam Norton for refusing to comply with the Cease and Desist letters they received – letters which were no more legally enforceable than the paper they weren’t written on, because they were only sent by e-mail.

Phil has recently launched an online petition to save Durham Cathedral Bookshop, once the jewel in the SPCK bookshop chain, from the clutches of SSG. The petition currently has 143 signatures, and could do with more. Please support this petition if you can.

Who was St Stephen the Great?

The story of how the SPCK bookshops were taken over by St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust, recently in the news, prompts me to this purely historical study of who this St Stephen the Great might be. I remembered only one thing, that he is not the biblical Stephen, the first Christian martyr. I thought I had remembered another fact, that he was a Serb like Radovan Karadzic, but it turns out that my memory was faulty.

It was hard to find good information about this St Stephen. I did manage to find the following transcription of Mark Brewer’s words from a video, but only courtesy of a Google cache as this is from one of the posts by Dave Walker whose deletion Mark Brewer seems to have demanded.

I’m Mark Brewer, Chairman of the Saint Stephen the Great charitable trust. Who was Saint Stephen the great? He was a man who lived in the fifteenth century who fought some forty seven battles against the Muslim Turks who were invading Eastern Europe at that time. During his lifetime, after every battle he commemorated a church, built a new church to the glory of God throughout eastern Romania. He restored churches that had been destroyed by the Ottoman Turks. He is therefore a very fitting patron saint for this trust. We want to aspire to do the very same thing that Saint Stephen did, we want to rescue restore and re-energise the churches of this great country to the glory of God and to the salvation of the people.

I also found with some difficulty a Wikipedia article about St Stephen the Great, who in fact seems to have been a 15th century ruler of Moldavia (Moldova). He does indeed seem to have been a great defender of the cause of state-controlled Christianity in eastern Romania. So it is not surprising that he was canonised by the Romanian Orthodox Church, and is even now considered in Romania to be the greatest Romanian of all time.

But there is another side to this man at least in his associates. The details are sketchy, but Stephen seems to have been a close relative of Vlad the Impaler, otherwise known as Dracula, Stephen’s contemporary as ruler of Wallachia (southern Romania). The name “Dracula” comes from the Order of the Dragon (dracul, a stange symbol for a supposedly Christian order) into which he had been initiated as a child. The two rulers were close associates. As young man Stephen fled to Vlad’s court for protection from his enemies; he sent troops to help Vlad regain his throne; and later he married Vlad’s niece. Vlad also defended Romania from Turkish invaders, and on one occasion managed to impale 20,000 Turkish prisoners. He probably avoided being canonised by the Orthodox by later converting to Catholicism.

Stephen doesn’t seem to have been the same kind of cruel character as Vlad. But, despite the claim that “He was victorious in 34 of his 36 battles”, he ended up losing the war and having to cede sovereignty over his lands to the Muslim invaders:

Finally on 20 August 1503 he concluded a treaty with Sultan Beyazid II that preserved Moldavia’s self rule, at the cost of an annual tribute to the Turks. From the 16th century on, the Principality of Moldavia would spend three hundred years as an Ottoman vassal.

Is this man a fitting patron saint for today? I would not presume to comment.

Dave Walker capitulates on ex-SPCK bookshops

Dave Walker, cartoonist and blogger extraordinaire, blogger for the Church Times, friend of bishops (he’s the one on the right) and hanger-on (when they let him in) at the Lambeth conference, has shown what he is made of – that it is the typical spineless stuff of British Anglicans, who typically give in to every demand from Americans. (Well, the same is true of British politicians.) For in his fight to save the former SPCK bookshops, sold off for a song to the American Eastern Orthodox group St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (SSGCT, or just SSG), Dave has capitulated at the first shot from his American opponents.

Dave writes today:

This morning I was sent a ‘cease and desist’ demand from Mark Brewer relating to the posts I have made about the former SPCK bookshops. The demand says ‘Confidential – not to be redistributed or posted’, so I am not posting the text.

The demand says that if I do not remove all SSG-related material by noon today, July 22, 2008, an injunction will be sought against me and legal action taken for damages for libel.

I have therefore removed all of the SPCK/SSG posts on this blog, as, although I believe I have not done anything wrong I do not have the money to face a legal battle. The removal of these posts is in no way an admission of guilt.

To say I am not happy about the decision I have been forced to take here is an understatement. I feel as if I have let many people down who have relied on this site over the last year or more.

Mark Brewer is an American lawyer and chairman of SSGCT.

But, Dave, you have not been forced to make this decision. Mark Brewer is making an empty threat. I am not a lawyer, but it is quite clear even to me that the material you posted about the bookshops is at least for the most part perfectly legal. There can be no question of libel concerning the matters of fact in the public domain which make up the great majority of what you have written, and of the comments which you have allowed. You have routinely removed comments which might be considered defamatory. There may be minor specific matters which could be judged defamatory and so which you should remove. But in demanding a general removal of all material Mark Brewer does not have a leg to stand on. This is a basic issue of your freedom of expression, which is protected under national and international law. As bloggers we need to stand up against threats of this kind.

British courts do not take kindly to clever American lawyers trying to take out injunctions against ordinary people to stop them doing what they have a perfect right to do. If Brewer actually brings this to court, which is unlikely, he will be sent packing.

My advice, as a non-lawyer, to you would be to reinstate the posts and write back to Mark Brewer. You should say that you will not remove all the material because at least the majority of it is factual and therefore not defamatory, and you have a legal right to post it as a matter of freedom of expression. I suggest you also offer to remove any specific sections of posts or comments which they can demonstrate to you as being defamatory. The very least that will do is gain you some time as they will be forced to read all of your material to select some of it. If they send back a short list of items they would like removed, then comply or at least edit out what is truly defamatory. If they insist again on a blanket removal, offer to see them in court.

If you need legal advice but can’t afford to pay for it, I am sure there are people around who will offer this as part of their work to protect human rights in this country. Newspapers of course have legal teams to protect the rights of expression of their correspondents. I’m sure that even the Church Times has, and they may help you, but then they are British Anglicans.

Phil Groom’s blog about the former SPCK bookshops is still accessible, at least as I write. I wonder how long it will last. Probably at least until Phil returns from his holiday, as if he has been sent a similar letter to Dave’s he will not receive it until he returns. But I hope Phil is made of sterner stuff than Dave and does not capitulate to empty threats from the Brewers.