[sword-devel] The morality of Copyrighted Bibles and our response

Michael Paul Johnson sword-devel@crosswire.org
Thu, 02 Dec 1999 22:48:56 -0700

In March 1994, while driving home from work in my Volkswagen Rabbit, I was 
discussing the issue of copyrighted Bible translations with the Lord 
Himself. You see, I wanted to write some Bible study software to spread 
electronically, and I had run up against the problem that there really 
wasn't any modern English translation of the whole Bible that was as good 
as the commercial copyrighted ones, and getting permission to give 
unlimited copies of those away for free sounded highly unlikely. God's 
reply, though not quite audible, was definite and startled me. He told me 
to create a new translation. We discussed that for a while, and He 
prevailed. Since then, many thousands of hours of work have been done on 
the World English Bible, and there is more to do. Still, the New Testament, 
Psalms, and Proverbs are very close to being published in print, and the 
work is progressing on the Old Testament. God has given me the ability and 
the help I needed to do this work. Glory be to God!

Obviously, this is an issue that is important to me, and I have spent time 
in prayer and in doing things about it. I'd like to share some observations 
with you.

1. The greatest need for the Holy Bible is NOT in English. There are 
literally thousands of language groups in the world without even a book of 
the Holy Bible in their language. In smaller language groups, getting 
permission to publish the Bible from copyright holders is generally not a 
problem, because these works are frankly not of great commercial value.

2. English translations of the Holy Bible abound. One of the contributing 
factors to this bounty has been copyright protection and profit motive. The 
most popular modern English translations are copyrighted.

3. Many well-meaning Christians are involved in the creation of copyrighted 
translations -- Christians who see no problem doing so.

4. Maintaining a copyright on a Bible translation is good in that it allows 
some (limited) legal control that could be used to prevent or punish 
perversion of the text or use of the text in an inappropriate way. 
Sometimes a copyright is used only for this purpose (i. e. for the GLW, 

5. The potential for using a legal copyright monopoly to make a profit off 
of a good Bible translation is very tempting to a Bible society looking for 
ways to fund Bible translation and Bible publication work.

6. While the temptation is great to defy copyright law in the case of Bible 
texts, doing so looks exactly like stealing to many people, and in the eyes 
of the law of the land, it is indeed theft of intellectual property. Such 
conflicts between Christians can do serious damage to the Body of Christ 
and dishonors the name of Jesus Christ among the heathen.

7. The Lord Himself has made a way to get a high quality, Public Domain, 
Modern English translation of the whole Bible that can be copied and 
distributed for free in a manner that is totally above reproach, making 
arguments about the moral value  of the NIV, etc. copyrights a mute point.

8. While concerns about translational accuracy abound, and I take great 
care to be more accurate than is humanly possible in the World English 
Bible, I submit to you that even a "loose" translation read and acted on 
will get people saved. Lots of people get saved because of reading about 
Jesus in "The Living Bible" paraphrase and others that have no legitimate 
claim to great accuracy. The basic Gospel message is robust enough to be 
translated and still come through strong in many languages. If it weren't, 
then Jesus would be very unfair to us by telling us to preach the Gospel to 
and make disciples of EVERY nation. Jesus is not unfair -- unless you count 
the "unfairness" of the grace He offers us that we don't deserve.