I came across Russell Allen at the Bible Translation mailing list (the site linked to is rather out of date).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 www.Bible.org 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:
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.”
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.
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
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 and Centos
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, but with the trademark retained by bible.org. 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).