Open content licensing and the NET Bible

I came across Russell Allen at the Bible Translation mailing list (the site linked to is rather out of date). Russell wrote to the list to announce that he is working on a new open source Bible translation called the Open English Bible. The project is

intended to create an English translation of the Bible that is:

  • under a licence enabling the maximum reuse, remixing and sharing without requiring the payment of royalties or the obtaining of permission from copyright holders; and
  • a translation reflecting modern English usage and Biblical scholarship

This sounds good. But the purpose of this post is not to comment on Russell’s project (I’ll leave others to do that), but to repost here what he wrote to that list about licensing of Bible translations. I have Russell’s permission to do this under a Creative Commons attribution license (US version). This means that I have to attribute the material to Russell Allen, and so does anyone else who copies this material – which they are free to do with this one condition.

I am reposting this to clear up some confusion about what it means to make the text of a Bible version freely available. While I commend, for example, the NET Bible team for what they have done in making their text available, it is important to remember that there remain significant restrictions on how this text may be used, which some of us consider undesirable.

Russell wrote what he did in reply to an e-mail from David Austin, Executive Director which is “Home of the NETBible and over 5500 free studies”. Russell had asked David about licensing terms for the NET Bible text. As I do not have permission from David I will not reproduce his e-mail, and I will edit Russell’s reply to avoid direct quotes from David’s text. What follows, except in […], is what Russell wrote:

Hi David,

Good to hear from you.  Firstly, may I say that I greatly appreciate what the NET Bible has achieved, and I reiterate that my comments should not be read as a criticism of your licencing decisions.  The NET Bible is yours to licence as you see fit and I support your right to make that choice.

That said, I would like to respond to some of your points below. Please forgive me if I am teaching you to suck eggs 🙂

You say that you [do not think that the Bible text should be changed in response to] the ‘wisdom of crowds’ […].  I have an open mind on this, but readily concede that this is not an unreasonable judgement call.  I have seen a few desultory attempts at a Wiki Bible online, with very limited success.

The open content movement tends to use terms from the free/open source software community because that is where the concepts were first developed for modern use.  The idea of the wisdom of crowds is what I would describe as a argument for Open Source Software.  For example, the Open Source Initiative, which is as close to a widely accepted definition as you get, argue:

“Open source is a development method for software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process. The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in.”[1]

This is a functional argument – open source your software/content because it will lead to better quality software.

I am coming into this discussion from more of a Free Software background.  The Free Software movement, which predates the term ‘Open Source’ argues for the opening of content on the grounds of an idealistic (as opposed to pragmatic) preference for ‘freedom’: a preference for individual control and an analysis of societal power structures. In other words, both the Free Software and Open Source communities argue for essentially the same ends, but use different arguments.

[Note by Peter Kirk: I would think that the difference here is more of rhetoric than of principle. Most Open Source advocates believe in free software, but use pragmatic rather than idealistic arguments because they are more effective with some audiences.]

The Free Software Foundation is the original home of this argument.  If I may I will quote part of their definition of free software:

“Free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer.”

Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it means that the program’s users have the four essential freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

A program is free software if users have all of these freedoms. Thus, you should be free to redistribute copies, either with or without modifications, either gratis or charging a fee for distribution, to anyone anywhere. Being free to do these things means (among other things) that you do not have to ask or pay for permission to do so.

You should also have the freedom to make modifications and use them privately in your own work or play, without even mentioning that they exist. If you do publish your changes, you should not be required to notify anyone in particular, or in any particular way.[2]

The key to this approach is the ability to ‘fork’ a project. To fork a project is to make your own derivative project outside of the control of the originators of the project. This fork may be private, or it may publically compete with the original.

On the definition above, the NET Bible is not free. I cannot take the NET Bible, make changes and redistribute my changed version without permission[3]

Please note this is orthogonal to the issue of naming. You are quite correct that a number of high profile commercial free/open source projects trademark their names. Linux actually isn’t a very good example of this, as few of the major Linux distributions use Linus’s kernel – they all use patched versions – but Red Hat and Firefox both operate this way.

Nevertheless, both Red Hat and Firefox may be forked, as long as the fork is under a different name.  Examples of such forks are IceCat[4] and Centos[5]

If Red Hat and Firefox were not able to be forked, then they would not be considered free or open source software.

It would be quite possible for the NET Bible to be put under a CC Attribution licence[6], but with the trademark retained by  This would allow individuals and groups to have a first class translation that they could republish, alter, use as a base for retelling the stories, adjust to their local idiolects or dialects etc but they could not do this under the NET Bible name – so the reputation the NET Bible has built up would not be diminished.

As I said above, I completely support your right to make the licencing choices you have made.

I am, however, arguing that a free content licenced Bible is not so much about using the wisdom of the crowds to create a ‘better’ translation but is a good thing in itself, analogous to the initial freeing of the Bible from ecclesiastical control into the language of the people. It is about allowing individuals and groups to deal with the scriptures in accordance with their own consciences and theologies without attempting to use the power of the State – in this case via copyright law – to enforce a single Truth (with the belief that by this process a greater truth will be found).

Best wishes,








18 thoughts on “Open content licensing and the NET Bible

  1. I personally consider the NET Bible strategy beyond reproach. I would favor a full notes edition being made available for free but I can’t quibble with their financial model.

    I’m unsure what Russell thinks would be gained by his method. There’s also the WEB Bible based on the ASV that is attempting something similar. NET is hard to beat for scholarship and openness.

    Are you going to post this on BBB?

  2. David, thanks for your comment. Not sure why it went to spam at first.

    I’m not complaining about what the NET Bible team has chosen to do. But some people want a text which is available without any restrictions. Financial issues are separate.

    What Russell wants differs from WEB in that he wants to be more meaning-based, less literal, and also to follow the scholarly text rather than the pre-critical TR.

  3. Good luck to him. It’s a flooded market and I think time could be better spent working to open up excellent translations like the CEV rather than create a one-man translation without any marketing/distribution muscle. If he uses the critical text as his base he will get into trouble with copyright restrictions on the translation due to the tight hold that German Bible Society has on the Greek text for example.

    The idea of a free text here seems very naive. How might a “free” text be more useful than a translation like the CEV which is made available under some fairly open terms of use. Again the NET is premier in this department. You can translate it, print it out, repackage it and even sell it under the right circumstances.

    Just trying to ask difficult questions.

    P.S. Will you blog your reaction to my water baptism post? I’d like to hear from an Anglican.

  4. Russell is not using the German Bible Society’s Greek text but another scholarly text which is out of copyright. Ask him for more details (e-mail on the OEB website). I agree that there is a crowded market for English Bible translations, so I am not quite endorsing his efforts. But I would have expected you to support in principle his stand for the Bible text ideally being free from copyright restrictions. It is not real freedom, for a person or a text, to be told by an owner that it can do almost everything it wants to do if the owner still asserts the right to impose some restrictions.

  5. Hi guys, as Peter says, my focus here is free in the sense of without legal restriction rather than free in the sense of commercially without cost. A print version would still cost money to print, even if the publisher doesn’t need permission to publish from the copyright holder.

    As an example of how a ‘free’ text may be practically useful is that there is already a crowd sourced audio version of the underlying public domain text I am using at Librivox. No one’s permission was required, volunteers just self-organised to make it. This recording itself is also freely usable.

    I agree with you both that the translation market is very crowded. If the NET Bible or CEV etc released their text under a free licence, I would be happy to use and promote it. I haven’t seen signs of that happening though.

    I guess I see the Open English Bible in a transitional sense – something usable fairly quickly. If something better comes along, even better. But in the meantime it will be there if someone needs it.

  6. There is also a German creative commons Offene Bibel project – it’s ecumenical and they also hope to have a version with notes on the translation – maybe two versions – perhaps there are otehr Open Bible projects in other languages too …

  7. The market for commercial English translations is saturated but there are no versions that meet the growing need for a version that follows the scholarly text and allows derivative works, including translation into other languages. A translation that meets these criteria is a pressing need for the Door43 project ( which uses a wiki engine for creating, translating and adapting discipleship resources with & for the global church. We are considering using the PD WEB translation as a starting point and updating it to be more dynamic equivalent and reflect the critical text, calling it the Open Bible Translation. This is a daunting project and we’d prefer to use an existing translation, such as the NET Bible text but we’ve run into the same licensing restrictions that prevent derivative works so it is unusable under the current license.

  8. Tim, I agree with you. I think you will find plenty of versions whose copyright holders give permission for them to be used as the basis for translations into other languages, at least when major agencies are producing those translations. But that is not the same thing as the versions being free for people to use as they wish.

    The WEB Bible would indeed be a good starting point not least because it has been adapted from the scholarly text to the majority text, which would make it easier to adapt back.

    Thanks for letting me know about the Door43 project. This looks like a promising initiative. But I am concerned about quality issues if editing is open to too many people. I might suggest starting with an adaptation of WEB to the critical text without trying to change its style, then as a separate project a more dynamic version based on that. I might be interested in taking part, but I don’t know how much time I have for that. Or perhaps you ought to get together with Russell Allen.

  9. Peter, we are concerned about the quality issues as well, which is why we are using the FlaggedRevs (Flagged Revisions) extension to MediaWiki which makes it so any user registered on the site can edit the draft page, but only selected editors can flag a page as acceptably “accurate”, “clear”, etc. and so update the content of the page that is actually seen by users (more on the

  10. Thanks, Tim. This checking system is not as comprehensive as for professional Bible translations e.g. those done by the Bible Societies, but it is probably adequate for its purpose.

  11. I think we need a truly open Bible too, I might blog at BBB about my ideas.

    Rather than using a wiki model I would use the model of GitHub. Everyone would have their own version of the text, and any changes they make would be available to everyone else. There would be a sort of natural filtering effect where friends see their friends’ changes and copy the good ones. Respected people in the community (respected for their changeset choices, not because they are necessarily a good translator or scholar themselves. There’s no reason why they would have to go together all the time.) would eventually collect the best of these changes. Those in charge of the “official” translation would keep watching both all the individuals and the respected community people, and copy through the ones they think match their translation philosophies. And then the individual people can then merge all those changes back into their own texts.

    There’s no reason why this translation network couldnt actually be used by more than one team, even with different translation philosophies. They would of course ignore the target language changes which don’t fit, but the best source language scholarship could then be shared.

  12. Dannii, the Github approach sounds like a very flexible and robust solution to the specific needs of Bible translation by distributed teams – better than the wiki approach, which we have never seen as a very good fit for Bible translation and because of which we have not started using yet. Use of the Bible component in the wiki will probably work well for ease of incorporating the Bible translations, providing study materials, links, copy-and-paste of content into other components. But as a management interface for a Bible translation it doesn’t provide the features we need, namely, offline access and robust revision control. It sounds like Github could solve these problems quite nicely, if I’m understanding it correctly. Thank you for the overview.

  13. I’m late to the discussion but thought I’d weigh in on an overlooked issue.
    BTW, I’m the Publishing Director for the NET Bible and
    We support the open source and free community philosophy with regard to the domain of software.
    However, there is an issue with applying that software philosophy to a Bible translation (which is primarily content, rather than function). Making Firefox and Linux better through modifying the code enhances the function of the software. In this domain, there is no “content” there.
    First, the principles of translation outline our goals for the translation. Derivative products, as I understand them, would not necessarily follow or even agree with those principles. The result might be a heterogeneous translation that the scholars of the NET Bible would not appreciate being associated with, having spent 1,000s of hours of their own effort on the original translation. (I refer here to the comment above about the well-known provenance of certain derivative products above. If the provenance is known, having a derivative product by a different name still associates it with the original authors).
    Secondly, in my experience most of these changes (because, again, the translation is a content item, not a software item) would be motivated out of “pet verses” or theological bias (held belief from a particular wording of another translation).
    Consider in this latter case, a derivative author making a change to the NET Bible to make it match the NIV in a verse. Quite honestly, unless that author has pursued due diligence to translate the verse themselves, at the very least they are infringing on the copyright of the NIV.
    The content vs function is an often overlooked distinction when discussing Bible translation and open source software.

  14. Todd, thank you for your comment. I accept that there is a distinction between content and function, but I think most of the principles of open source etc can be applied to both.

    You are right of course that most people who changed a Bible, if they could, would do so to fit their private beliefs, purposes or preferences, and that these may conflict with those of the original translation team. But the same is true with software, except that perhaps dogma are not held so firmly in that field.

    I do understand where you are coming from, and I agree with Russell that you have the right to determine your own copyright policies. But I also see the argument for having a truly free Bible translation, and want to make it clear (not least to protect your copyright) that the NET Bible is not this.

  15. Todd, I think you’re fighting an impossible battle if you never want to be associated with people who disagree with you in some way. You make no attempt to protect the NET from people who might use it in some way you don’t like, do you? It would be ridiculous to have a blacklist of denominations who couldn’t use it! I don’t think that giving people the right to modify the text is fundamentally different. And if the licence required both the changes to be explained and had a non-endorsement clause I don’t think there’d be any significant problems.

    People understand derivative works in other domains, like software but also sampled music and visual art in the CC world. I think people will understand how it works (ie, that the original authors have no control over what changes people might introduce) with Bibles too.

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