Copyrighting the Word of God 1

Something of a row has broken out because Zack Hubert’s popular site for Bible scholars Re:Greek, formerly zhubert.com, has been closed down because the UBS Greek New Testament text it was using is copyrighted by the German Bible Society. This is reported by David Ker, at his FutureBible blog and at Better Bibles Blog, who is quite favourable towards the German Bible Society; by Tim Bulkeley who disagrees with David; and by Tim Bayly who writes an intemperate rant about the situation but make some good points while doing so.

First we need to get some facts straight. Tim Bayly writes that

A Greek Bible web site used by lovers of God’s Word around the world has been shut down by the German/United Bible Society.

But it seems that this is not actually true. According to this discussion thread, the only communication from the German Bible Society was the following letter, which was not to Zack Hubert but to Weston Ruter, who leads another project, Open Scriptures. Here is the text of the letter, as quoted in the hidden text in the first item on the thread:

I understand your Open Scriptures project as being not-for-profit and open source.

The German Bible Society is a not-for-profit religious foundation. Its mission, in collaboration with other members of the United Bible Societies, is to promote biblical research and worldwide Bible translation work in order to make the Bible available to everybody in their own language.

Biblical research and translation work costs a lot of money. Therefore, according to the standing rules of our foundation, we have to earn money with our texts to enable further Bible translations worldwide.

Please understand that as a matter of principle we don’t license the NA27 or the UBS4 Bible text for open source projects.

Regarding the “MorphGNT with UBS4” on the Open Scriptures website: This is
again a copyright infringement as the basis of the text is the UBS4. We ask
you to remove this text from your website, too, as we are the copyright
holder of the UBS4.

Well, it is a strange way to “promote biblical research and worldwide Bible translation work” to deny permission for scholars and translators to use the primary tool for much of their work, the recognised scholarly edition of the Greek New Testament. But the German Bible Society did not communicate this to Zack Hubert. Rather, Zack read this letter, forwarded to him by Weston, and replied:

Oh.  Well that’s really bad news.

As I’m using the MorphGNT for zhubert.com, it pretty much sounds like the project needs to shutdown to protect their copyright.

Shortly after that he shut down zhubert.com, of his own accord and without any direct communication from the German Bible Society. But there is another side to his action: Zack no longer had time to keep his project going. He said last year:

What can I do to keep this project continuing since I only had 15 minutes a week to go in and either approve a lexicon entry or make a little bug fix …

The lack of time is no doubt because Zack now has a busy day job for Zondervan, no less, working on the social network tool The City. Weston wrote last week, just after quoting the above:

Zack seems to have washed his hands of the Re:Greek project …

So, in the light of the German Bible Society’s attitude Zack Hubert has voluntarily decided to close down a site which, as he had already stated, he was no longer supporting properly. It seems to me that the letter from the German Bible Society simply prompted Zack to do what he was surely going to do rather soon anyway.

There may anyway be more to this than meets the eye. Zondervan has recently acquired not just The City but also Bible Gateway, which was in some senses already a competitor to zhubert.com, although the UBS Greek text is not one of the Greek texts it offers, and has the potential of being enhanced to be a more complete competitor. Zondervan, which is part of the Murdoch group, would hardly encourage an employee to work privately on a competitor to one of its own products. One might hope that they would employ some of Zack’s great talents on enhancing Bible Gateway to include the sadly missed special features of zhubert.com. They can also of course afford to pay the German Bible Society royalties to make the UBS Greek New Testament available on their site – or to face down their copyright threats if their own lawyers consider them empty.

Meanwhile a German Bible Society representative wrote in a follow-up message on the same thread:

the German Bible Society does not  license the Greek New Testament for online use as a matter of principle. … However the Greek Bible text is available for free in our Bible portal www.bibelwissenschaft.de.

Well, it is good that the text is available there. It is sad that the site is only in German and so able to “promote biblical research and worldwide Bible translation work” only among that small minority who read German well. The days have gone when every Bible scholar in the world was German or had studied for many years in Germany.

Sadly the response of many to this may be that they do not give money to Bible Societies or others who take this attitude, as a matter of principle. This mean-spirited attitude can be contagious and has the potential of doing great harm, financially and in other ways, to the interests of the Bible Societies and of the work which they claim to promote.

The Bible Societies need to make a decision whether they are funding their outreach work primarily from commercial profits or primarily from gift income. They can decide the former, follow good business practice, and watch their gift income dry up – although if they do this they will have to give up their UK charitable status. Or they can choose to operate as a charity and rely on donations for the bulk of their income. In this case they need to renounce any commercial practices, even if they make good business sense, which alienate their support base, and instead be seen as generous and open-handed. I hope they choose the latter.

By the way, I should disclose that some of my past Bible translation work was funded in part by the United Bible Societies. I have also benefited from the generosity of the German Bible Society: they sent a free boxful of Nestle-Aland Greek-English New Testaments to the small new Bible society I was working with, in a former Soviet republic, a place where there were very few Greek scholars; this Bible society started to sell them off quite cheaply mainly to people who wanted English Bibles; and I bought one, for far less than the normal price in the West.

I had intended what I have written here to be just the introduction to a discussion of the principle of copyrighting the Word of God. But it has already become an over-long post in its own right. So I will leave this here and hope to continue the discussion later.

UPDATE 28th March: I have now published part 2 of this series.

6 thoughts on “Copyrighting the Word of God 1

  1. Peter,

    Thank you for your post. For sometime now, I have been planning to write a post on copyrighting the Word of God. The truth is that many publishing houses are now developing their own translations as a way to add to their profit.

    Translating the Bible costs money but Bible translations and copyrighting those translations has become a money-making venture.

    Claude Mariottini

  2. Thanks for doing the homework. While I’m certainly a proponent of open source, first and foremost I think we need to respect intellectual rights of individuals and organizations to distribute their work on their terms.

  3. Thank you, Claude.

    And you, David, but I’m not sure that I agree, especially where the product is not “their work” but their presentation of someone else’s – more on this later. But none of us can afford to bite the hands that feed us.

  4. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Copyrighting the Word of God 2

  5. Pingback: The Copyrighted Bible Kerfuffle Roundup « futurebible

  6. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom» Blog Archive » The electronic Bible shouldn’t only be for a privileged few

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