These days if you pick up any Bible off the shelf and look at the first couple of pages you'll no doubt see a copyright notice saying that you "cannot reproduce this work without permission..." with a few instances where you are allowed to display a selection of verses, generally aimed at the church context. While this is fine in most western world cases, I believe this is actually counter to the Lord's intentions for His Word.

Now, I will admit that I made the title to this article sensationalist, but to most companies.(especially publishing companies) "copyright" equates to a restrictive license. In reality, copyright just indicates that you retain the rights to control the licensing of your work. Licensing is actually a separate system by itself.

As an example of this difference it is good to look at the Creative Commons organisation which has compiled a list of possible licenses for people to use for their copyrighted material. They have set up their licenses to use a set of popular clauses when dealing with copyright licenses, which you can make use of. Creative Commons has taken the concept of open licensing and shown how you can copyright your works while still allowing people to use them. They have options like allowing or disallowing derivatives, disallowing commercial use, providing attribution, and various other common options.

The publishing companies creating translations of the Bible could really look into using one of these licenses, instead of just blindly forbidding all reproduction of their translations. I personally recommend using a Creative Commons BY-SA-ND-NC license. This specifies that the person who wishes to reproduce it should attribute the works back to the original author, all redistributed copies should retain this license, no derivatives can be made, and that no one can use it commercially. This license is restricted in the right places, but also open in the right places. With this license a missionary organisation can use the whole Bible translation for the purposes of furthering the Gospel, while a company wanting to print it would need to obtain a separate license.

I can understand why one of these publishing companies would want to restrict licensing of their translation of the Bible, it took many translators a lot of time to translate the Bible, and they need to recoup those costs. Having said that, this is also God's Word we are talking about, and by restricting its reproduction, you are restricting its use, and ultimately restricting people's ability to spread His Word to those who do not know Him yet - a direct contravention of Jesus' command. For example, while a missionary might not necessarily want to use an English Bible for teaching and spreading the Gospel, an English one is better than none at all.

One of the publishing companies that has chosen to license their translation in a less restrictive manner is the NET Bible. They provide their translation for folks to download for free, while their real value lies in their translation notes which you can buy.

Thankfully these restrictions have not inhibited the spreading of God's Word, in part no doubt due to the fact that the original manuscripts are not copyrighted, and therefore not under any restrictive licenses preventing them from being copied and translated.

What do you think? Should translations of the Bible be copyrighted? Should their licenses be less restrictive?


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