The Bible and Copyright Law: How Can Anyone Claim Ownership of the Bible?

Barb Wire

This may seem like an odd issue to write about, but some of you may have had a few questions about all this now and then. The main reason I have for writing this is the fact that just moments ago I was glancing at the opening pages of one of my Bibles and had a quick read of what it says about copyright:

The NIV text may be quoted in any form (written, visual, electronic or audio), up to and inclusive of five hundred (500) verses without express written permission of the publisher, providing the verses do not amount to a complete book of the Bible nor do the verses quoted account for twenty-five percent (25%) or more of the total text of the work in which they are quoted.

As I reflected on this, I realised that many other Christians may have some thoughts or questions about this. Permission to quote the Bible? Is not the Word of God something for all people, free of charge? How can anyone claim ownership over the Holy Scriptures?

These are all fair questions. The short answer would go something like this: when it comes to modern Bible versions, we can in fact speak of three authors. God of course is the major, primary author. But the Bible is co-authored – men and God together wrote the Bible. So Isaiah and John and Paul etc., also had a real role to play in producing God’s word.

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But we have a third set of “authors” if you will: all the translators and biblical experts who worked so hard and so long to give good English translations of the original texts. Most of us are not proficient in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, so we depend upon these scholars and experts to offer us English translations which as closely as possible reflect what is found in the best manuscripts we have available.

So in that sense they played a role in authorship as well. So if they gave much time and effort to these translation projects, well, as Paul says, the labourer is worthy of his hire. While it might be nice if these hundreds of translators and scholars devoted the years of work involved in this for free, they would have families to feed just as you and I do.

So it is a matter of both intellectual property rights (all the intellectual effort that goes into making a good translation), as well as some sort of remuneration for the work provided. Sure, the Bible is God’s word, but he worked through human authors originally to bring about the 66 books of the Bible, and he uses – to a lesser extent, but still importantly – modern scholars to help in the ongoing work of translation.

Now for most of you perhaps my short answer should suffice. But for those who want to take this a bit further, let me simply quote from three websites to offer some more background and detail on all this. The first is simply a Wikipedia entry on copyright. It begins this way:

Copyright is a legal right created by the law of a country that grants the creator of an original work exclusive rights for its use and distribution. This is usually only for a limited time. The exclusive rights are not absolute but limited by limitations and exceptions to copyright law, including fair use. A major limitation on copyright is that copyright protects only the original expression of ideas, and not the underlying ideas themselves.

Copyright is a form of intellectual property, applicable to certain forms of creative work. Some, but not all jurisdictions require “fixing” copyrighted works in a tangible form. It is often shared among multiple authors, each of whom holds a set of rights to use or license the work, and who are commonly referred to as rights holders. These rights frequently include reproduction, control over derivative works, distribution, public performance, and “moral rights” such as attribution.

Copyrights are considered territorial rights, which means that they do not extend beyond the territory of a specific jurisdiction. While many aspects of national copyright laws have been standardized through international copyright agreements, copyright laws vary by country.

Typically, the duration of a copyright spans the author’s life plus 50 to 100 years (that is, copyright typically expires 50 to 100 years after the author dies, depending on the jurisdiction). Some countries require certain copyright
formalities to establishing copyright, but most recognize copyright in any completed work, without formal registration. Generally, copyright is enforced as a civil matter, though some jurisdictions do apply criminal sanctions.

Most jurisdictions recognize copyright limitations, allowing “fair” exceptions to the creator’s exclusivity of copyright and giving users certain rights. The development of digital media and computer network technologies have prompted reinterpretation of these exceptions, introduced new difficulties in enforcing copyright, and inspired additional challenges to copyright law’s philosophic basis. Simultaneously, businesses with great economic dependence upon copyright, such as those in the music business, have advocated the extension and expansion of copyright and sought additional legal and technological enforcement.

The BibleGateway site – which is one of a number of very helpful online Bible sites – asks the question, “Why are modern Bible translations copyrighted?” It answers it as follows:

Many modern Bible translations are copyrighted, and thus place restrictions on the extent to which you can quote or reprint passages from them. Publishers retain rights to their translations because producing a Bible translation is an enormously extensive (and expensive) project. A single translation can represent years of work by hundreds of scholars, theologians, and editors, all of whom need to be reimbursed for their work. By retaining their copyright to the translation and asking you to respect that copyright, publishers are able to pay their translators and ensure continued translation work.

This means that downloading or distributing the entire text of a copyrighted Bible translation is not permitted. Fortunately, most publishers do allow you to quote passages from their translations within a reasonable limit. You can find general copyright information at the bottom of all the passage pages, and more complete copyright and re-use information by clicking on a specific Bible version on this page: For specific information on individual versions, please contact the publisher directly.

If you are looking for a Bible without any copyright restrictions at all, you do have several options. Some older Bible translations are in the public domain and may be freely reprinted, quoted, and copied without any restrictions at all; the King James Version is the most well-known of these. And if you have the skills and dedication, there is nothing stopping you from creating your own Bible translation–there are online projects dedicated to doing just that!

To sum up, Bible versions are copyrighted to make sure that translators are fairly reimbursed for their hard work. Most copyrighted Bible versions have relatively lenient quoting rules that should cover most common situations. But if for whatever reason the copyright rules prevent you from using the Bible as you like, you’re free to use a non-copyrighted Bible version.

Finally, another site which looks at this issue offers more background material. Here are some parts of that page:

The Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts of the Bible are public domain (and a cornerstone of our cultural heritage). But it turns out that even the critical text is protected by copyright laws. For the general public, this is no great loss as there are plenty of unrestricted options and the licences for most translations allow for the most common uses of the texts. But all of this has serious implications for scholars who honor the wishes of the Bible publishers. It’s tempting to get angry with the publishers or to ignore the restrictions.

However, we have a duty to comply with the licences of our translations so that the hard-working folks who produce them can afford to keep laboring. Most of them are reasonable people who are as interested in seeing God’s Word preached as you are. In fact I’ll let the Crossway (publishers of the ESV) blog have the final word:

“We’re not going to come after you if you don’t cite quotes from the ESV according to these guidelines. But we’d appreciate it if you did. Using the letters “ESV” also helps us track the popularity of the ESV in the blogosphere.”

The article goes on to speak about how long copyright laws tend to be in effect:

In the United States, Copyright law has two basic categories – protected works and public domain. When a work has been around long enough (currently 95 years after the first publication or 70 years after the author’s death) it enters the public domain, and is therefore allowed to be reproduced at will.

According to the “Copyright Act”, any work published prior to 1923 is in the public domain. This means many older translations are fair use:

King James Version
Revised Standard Version (but not the NRSV)
Young’s Literal
JPS Bible (but not the New JPS nor the Jerusalem Bible)

The article goes on to say that some modern Bible translations seek to make things much easier in this regard. The ESV is one such example of this. Says the article:

The English Standard Version ESV is copyrighted, but the terms are intentionally loose:

“When quotations from the ESV text are used in non-saleable media, such as church bulletins, orders of service, posters, transparencies, or similar media, a complete copyright notice is not required, but the initials (ESV) must appear at the end of the quotation. Publication of any commentary or other Bible reference work produced for commercial sale that uses the English Standard Version must include written permission for use of the ESV text.”

So hopefully this helps explain the issue of Bibles and copyright laws. Whether or not you think any Bible should have any sort of copyright legislation applied to it, that is another matter for discussion and debate. But the above explains why modern translations do have this.

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

Bill Muehlenberg
Bill Muehlenberg, who was born in America, lives in Melbourne, Australia. He runs a web-based ministry of pro-faith, pro-family activism called CultureWatch: Bill is widely sought out by the media for comments on social issues, faith issues, and family issues, and has appeared on all the major television and radio news shows, current affairs shows, and debate programs. He is the author of In Defence of the Family; Strained Relations: The Challenge of Homosexuality, and several other books.

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