Online Greek, Hebrew texts from German Bible Society

Two years ago I was very critical of the German Bible Society for their “ridiculous” copyright claims on the original language Greek and Hebrew Bible texts.

BHSI am now pleased to report that these texts are now available online from the same Bible Society, at its English language Academic Bibles website, although the copyright claims have not been dropped. Specifically, the texts available are BHS Hebrew Bible, the NA27 and UBS Greek New Testament, and the Rahlfs Septuagint, as well as the Latin Vulgate.

NA27These online editions do not include the critical apparatus. Also when I looked at a Bible passage I read the following in a sidebar:

Currently you are using this website as a guest. This allows you to read the Bible text, but you cannot run searches and look up linked information. In order to use the additional features, please log in or sign up free of charge.

Thanks to Jim West for the link.

Free and Unrestricted Discipleship Resources

This is a great video from Door43 about how the church worldwide needs discipleship resources free from copyright restrictions. Copyright owners here in the West are seeking to enrich themselves while Third World churches are struggling for lack of the material they need. This is a scandal, but one which Door43 is working to overcome.

I note that among their projects is an Open Bible Translation, in English and to be released under an open licence.

The future of the global church is Open from Distant Shores Media on Vimeo.

Love of Bible copyright is a root of all kinds of evil

David KerAt futurebible.org, one of his many blogs, David Ker  has written an interesting post Bible copyrights are not evil. At least I assume he is the author, as this is his blog and the style is familiar. But the Posterous post is formally anonymous (although the version on the feed has his name on it), which casts serious doubt on his claim

But once I publish it, I as the author am automatically granted copyright of my own work without doing anything else.

Anyway I think this depends on which national law applies. Is he referring to the law of South Africa where he lives, or of the USA of which he is a citizen? Also this applies only to original work, and not to republication of an existing work that is out of copyright, such an original language Bible text.

David’s main point is that within our legal systems copyright exists, whether we like it or not, and that this applies to Bible translations as much as to any other works. This seems to be the basis for his argument that Bible copyright is not evil. Now that is clearly a non sequitur. There are many things which exist in our world, including some which are sanctioned by our legal system, which are evil. I doubt if David would argue that apartheid in his adopted country was not evil because it was established by law. So something existing and being legal does not imply that it is not evil.

But I am not trying to argue that copyright is evil. I see it as rather like money. Despite the common Bible misquotation, money is not the root of all evil. Rather,

the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.

1 Timothy 6:10 (NIV 2011)

Similarly I would suggest that in itself copyright is not evil, but, especially in relation to the Bible, love of copyright can be a root of all kinds of evil.

Copyright, like money, has its positive and beneficial uses, some of which David mentions. It means that any text has a specific owner – but that is a problem if that owner is unknown or uncontactable. It offers some kind of protection against unauthorised changes to works, whether deliberate or accidental. And it helps authors to get a reasonable income from their creative efforts. But it also has a serious negative uses, such as when it is used to restrict the distribution of information and scholarship or to make unreasonable profits.

David writes about the commendable attitude of many Bible publishers who, while continuing to name themselves as copyright holders, have open policies towards their work being republished and distributed widely. But, as he notes, sadly this is not true of all who publish Bibles, in translation and in the original languages. Some seem to want to claim exclusive rights for everything, even when their claims are patently ridiculous. They may justify their attitude by appealing to their need to protect their income from book sales and royalties, but perhaps they need to learn that generosity encourages generosity and stinginess begets stinginess. The Preacher wrote:

Cast your bread upon the waters,
for after many days you will find it again.

Ecclesiastes 11:1 (NIV 1984)

(For once I prefer the more traditional rendering of the 1984 NIV; the 2011 rendering “Ship your grain across the sea…” may be exegetically justified but doesn’t fit my purpose here.)

If this applies to literal bread (or grain), how much more does it apply to the food which truly sustains (Matthew 4:4), in printed or electronic form, and to the resources needed to distribute it!

The laws on copyright are man-made traditions. That does not make them bad. But when professing Christians use them to obstruct the commands of God, such as to teach and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20), they are surely subject to the same kind of condemnation which Jesus directed at the scribes and Pharisees:

He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
7 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’
8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

9 And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! … 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

Mark 7:6-9,13 (NIV 2011)

Brother Andrew and Open Doors became famous for smuggling Bibles into Communist countries, and by doing so breaking the laws of those countries. I believe that they argued that the imperative of bringing the gospel to their peoples takes precedence over the general Christian obligation to be subject to governments (Romans 13:1). Should the same apply in the case of copyright? Where copyright holders are being unreasonably restrictive, would it be right for Christians to publish and distribute their materials without permission, so that the gospel may be preached without restriction and believers receive the biblical teaching that they need? I welcome any discussion here.

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 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:

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 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).

Best wishes,

Russell

[1]: http://www.opensource.org/

[2]: http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html

[3]: http://bible.org/permissions

[4]: http://www.gnu.org/software/gnuzilla/

[5]: http://www.centos.org/

[6]: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/

The electronic Bible shouldn’t only be for a privileged few

David Ker has posted a claim that the Bible Societies Feast on hummingbird tongues and throw scraps to the rabble. His language is, as so often, highly emotive and somewhat exaggerated – I don’t think anyone at the Bible Societies is living in excessive luxury, although things might look a bit different from the perspective of rural Mozambique. But he certainly has a good point. Bible Societies are not living up to their mission statements if they restrict availability of electronic texts of the versions they control.

A few months ago I posted a short series about Copyrighting the Word of God (part 2, follow-up 1, follow-up 2). These posts were mainly about the original language Bible texts. But especially in the last of these posts I criticised the German Bible Society’s overblown and frankly ridiculous claims to hold the copyright of the Luther and Good News Bibles, as well as of the Greek and Hebrew texts.

David’s point is related but a bit different. He is talking mainly about Bible translations whose copyright is legitimately owned by particular Bible Societies. He doesn’t challenge this copyright, except at the end when he mentions the possibility of breaking it. But he appeals to the Bible Societies’ mission statements (I’m not sure if he is basing this on any specific such statements), which he calls “empty promises”, as the basis of his appeal for them to make their best translations available in electronic form even to “The most disadvantaged students of the Bible”.

This is a complex issue. The various Bible Societies have to fund their work somehow. They cannot do this if they simply give away Bibles, whether in print or electronically – at least unless there is a massive increase in their income from donations, or from selling at a large profit the kinds of luxury Bibles which make David want to puke. There are also complex issues of the independence of national societies: the United Bible Societies (that is, the single organisation with that plural name) does not have the power to “take action across the board” as David wants it to.

But the basic point is a good one. In an age where the poor in Africa have mobile phones but no books, the Bible Societies really should not be trying to make money by pricing electronic Bible texts as luxury items that only the rich can afford. Instead they should recognise that this has become an important way of reaching with the Bible massive audiences that would never buy books – and without the considerable expense of printing and distributing books. Once an online text has been produced its distribution is essentially free of charge and can now, as phone networks grow, reach to the remotest corners of the earth. These electronic texts should be recognised as no longer just something for the privileged but as a major way for the Bible Societies to fulfil their international mission of distributing the Word of God.

German Bible Society copyright claims: from the sublime to the ridiculous

The German Bible Society has rather belatedly commented on my post Original Bible text cannot be copyrighted, US copyright attorney says, by posting a link to what the call A German Bible Society Statement on the copyright situation for the Greek New Testament. In fact this page is a very general one about copyright, in English, with no specific mention of the Greek New Testament. But I was amazed to see what they are claiming copyright for:

Please note that translations of the Bible and original text editions published by the German Bible Society are likewise subject to copyright. Permission is thus also required for the use of verses/passages from our Bible translations (e.g. Luther, Good News Bible) and the original text editions (Hebrew, Greek, Latin).

So, it seems that the GBS is claiming as “our Bible translations” and asserting its own copyright for Luther’s 16th century translation into German, and for the Good News Bible which is in fact copyrighted by the American Bible Society – formally a separate organisation. These claims are entirely baseless at least in British and American law, probably also in German law.

The German Bible Society needs to realise that they cannot claim copyright for anything and everything that they publish, but only (as I understand the law in general terms) for works which are subject to copyright and whose copyright has been assigned to them. Until they are able to demonstrate a proper understanding of this basic principle they can hardly expect any of their copyright claims to be taken seriously.

I continue to hold that the Bible, in the original text and in translation, is the property of the Christian public in general and not of any one society which tries to assert claims over it. I accept the need for proper remuneration of editors, translators and publishers. But I do not accept that unsupportable claims like those of the German Bible Society are a proper way of ensuring this; rather they become a means of restricting the freedom of the word of God.

Original Bible text cannot be copyrighted, US copyright attorney says

This post was originally a comment on my previous post about copyright. I have decided to make it a separate post because of its importance, and have added the last part, after the quote.

Stan Gundry of Zondervan, in his own comment on a post which is mostly written by him, while not entirely agreeing with me on these issues, confirms that the critical text  of the Greek New Testament, and the Hebrew Bible, is not protected by copyright in the USA:

I am not a copyright attorney myself, but I have had lengthy phone conversations with a lawyer who is credited with being the best in the USA. Here’s the deal, at least according to USA copyright law. Ancient texts such as those we are dealing with in the OT (Hebrew/Aramaic) and NT (Greek) are in the public domain and are not protected by copyright. In fact (and this is controversial), even the critical texts as reconstructed by textual critics cannot be protected by enforceable copyrights.

This is indeed good news. It means that, at least in the USA, the German Bible Study does not have a leg to stand on to in its refusal to allow MorphGNT and Re:Greek to use the UBS Greek New Testament text.

I am tempted to compare this issue with the attempts, which backfired, of Mark Brewer to stifle debate about the former SPCK bookshops – a saga which is continuing, and still being documented by Phil Groom. The comparison is not entirely fair because the German Bible Society has not taken the same kind of active role that Mark Brewer took in demanding that material was removed from the Internet. Nevertheless I think they will find, just as Mark Brewer did, that their restrictions on the availability of their text will backfire on them.

I have a complete electronic copy of the UBS Greek New Testament 4th edition text. I will not publish it myself not least because the copyright position here in the UK is not as clear as in the USA. But I see no reason not to provide this text to people in the USA for them to use as they please.

Copyrighting the Word of God 2

In part 1 of this series I discussed the demise of Re:Greek and zhubert.com because the text they were based on is copyrighted by the German Bible Society. In this post I discuss the issue of whether it is possible, or right, for anyone to claim copyright over the original text of the Bible.

I note first that this is an issue only for the New Testament, because the UBS Greek text (the UBS 4th edition which is essentially the same as the Nestle-Aland 27th edtion) is an eclectic text, with readings chosen by a committee of scholars (Barbara and Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger) who have presumably assigned their copyright to the German Bible Society.

By contrast, in the German Bible Society’s edition of the Hebrew Bible, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, which is also the recognised scholarly edition, the basic text is simply copied from the Leningrad Codex manuscript which is out of copyright. So others are free to publish an identical text as long as it is derived directly from the Codex. Indeed, at least one other group has done so, at Westminster Theological Seminary, with the results being online as the Westminster Leningrad Codex with a Creative Commons licence. Sadly it is not possible to do quite the same to reproduce the UBS Greek New Testament text.

It is nearly two years since I last discussed copyright on this blog, and when I did so I did not refer to the biblical text. I stand by what I wrote there, and so I agree in part with David Ker’s position, that we should respect the rights of scholars as well as artists to protect and make a living from their own work. I also agree that we shouldn’t do anything to undermine the support which the larger western Bible societies provide to Bible translation and distribution projects worldwide. Nevertheless I agree with the thrust of Tim Bulkeley’s “oversimplification” (his word):

If GBS (or any other Bibe Society) restricts people making the text freely available, simply to protect the economic viability of their print editions – which are expensive to produce luxury items – then they are betraying the generations of Christians who have coughed up their hard earned cash “to make the Bible available”!

So, what of the principle of copyrighting the Bible? I note Vern Poythress’ theological discussion of copyright, in which he argues for a right to copy others and that “restricting copying interferes with loving one’s neighbor”. This provides justification for Tim Bayly’s assertion that

no one and no corporation and no non-profit organization should ever be allowed to hold a copyright on any text of Scripture for anything other than assuring the integrity of the text they worked to produce.

Tim Bayly has also, in an earlier post, demonstrated the absence of any proper legal basis, at least under US law, for any claims of copyright on compilations and selections of material where there is no originality or creativity. The principles explained there surely apply to the work of the scholarly compilers of the UBS Greek text, which is by its very intention the opposite of their own creative and original work: it is to restore the original 1st century text.

Now I accept that the textual apparatus in the UBS Greek New Testament, i.e. the discussion of variant readings, is original work and so can be copyrighted. But the matter at issue with Re:Greek and others is main text which is separate from the apparatus.

I can imagine the German Bible Society being asked in court to show places where their text is actually original in the sense of being different from any previously existing public domain text. The only places they could potentially point out are where they have actually failed to do their job!

The situation is different with a Bible translation because it is accepted that the work of translation is original and creative. So there is a legal basis for new Bible translations being copyrighted, which does not apply to new editions of original language Bible texts, nor for that matter of public domain Bible translations. Nevertheless Tim Bayly seems to consider copyright claims on Bible translations to be immoral, if not illegal, although he does allow that publishers should be allowed to charge royalties until such time as their investment in the translation process has been recouped.

To summarise my own position, I would agree with Vern Poythress that there is no moral justification for restricting copying of one’s work of any kind. Yes, I need to respect and obey the existing law, but that does not make it right for me to rely on its protection of my own work. While I understand people’s desires to protect their own genuinely creative work, it seems to me morally repugnant to claim copyright over mere compilations and arrangements of the work of others, and especially so when that work is the written word of God.

On the issue of profitability, I note that most of the profit in marketing biblical texts in the original and in translation is from annotated and study editions. The notes of whatever kind in these editions are usually creative or original and so can quite properly be copyrighted, if any text can. I also note that the free availability of an online text generally tends to promote rather than reduce sales of print editions. So it is highly unlikely that there will be a real threat to any publisher’s income from making a Bible text freely available.

So I call on the German Bible Society and all others claiming copyright over texts and translations of the Bible to renounce those copyright claims and make their work freely accessible to all who have a need for it.

But I note that things are changing, if only slowly. The Institute for New Testament Textual Research at the University of Münster, Germany, which was founded by Kurt Aland, is working on the Digital Nestle-Aland which is:

the forthcoming electronic version of the standard scholarly edition of the Greek New Testament. It offers two major features not available in the printed book:

  • Transcripts of important Greek manuscripts of the New Testament
  • New complete apparatus based on these transcripts

- and on the Editio Critica Maior which is the next generation of the Greek New Testament text. In a discussion on copyright nearly three years ago at Evangelical Textual Criticism P.J. Williams seemed to offer hope that the Editio Critica Maior would be free of copyright restrictions, but it will be some time before this text is complete. On that matter I think we need to wait and see.

But the decade or so before this edition is completed is too long to wait for wider access to the current UBS Greek text. I hope that the Bible societies will see sense on this. Perhaps other Bible societies will pressure the German one to release the text to undo the damage that the current controversy is doing to their image, and potentially to their income. As I wrote in the previous post, they need to decide whether they are going to rely for their income on dubious business practices or on the generosity of God’s people.

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.

Is breach of copyright theft?

Claude Mariottini writes that You Shall Not Steal Thy Brother’s Song (sic with the mixture of “you” and “thou” forms, and I guess he intends it to refer to sisters’ songs as well). Thanks to Tim Bulkeley for this link and his discussion of the issue, and to Claude for his follow-up post. Let me first assure everyone that I agree that it is wrong to copy Christian and other songs without permission. But is this really what Claude claims it to be, theft and a breach of the Ten Commandments?

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