[sword-devel] Copyright Scripture distribution

Joel Mawhorter sword-devel@crosswire.org
Fri, 3 Dec 1999 20:23:56 -0800


I've introduced myself before but I send mail to this list so rarely that I'll
do it again.  I'm a computer science student at the University of Vicoria in
British Columbia, Canada. I have a strong interest in seeing electronic
distribution of scriptures in various non-European languages. I am especially
interested in the various middle eastern languages. It is not easy to get a
Bible into some of these countries, and, since many of the middle east
countries are developed nations, electronic distribution makes sense. It is
also my interest to develop some simple, free Bible search software with Unicode
support. I think the Sword project is great but there is not a lot of
Bible software available for non-Latin alphabets. However, for this to be useful
there need to be texts available in the various languages. I have contacted
several agencies in an attempt to find out what I need to do to get access to
these texts. Since the issue of Copyrighted texts is being discussed on this
list, I thought I would give some info. on my experiences.

I first contacted Wycliffe Bible Translators, however they mostly do
texts for small groups with no current scripture, so electronic distribution is
not going to be very useful for the groups they translate for. I contacted the
Canadian Bible society and received a reply.  Below is that e-mail with my
reply to it. I never received a reply to this message. 

>Dear Mr. Mawhorter,
>Thank you for you enquiry, which was forwarded to me by the Rev'd Bill
>The Canadian Bible Society has access to many non-English texts, including
>our own translations of indigenous languages.  However, as we are in the
>process of compiling and creating our own electronic collection (MultiBible
>TM) you will understand our reluctance to release these texts to you.  

Dear Greg Bailey,

I'm afraid I don't understand your reluctance; I was under the  impression
that the Canadian Bible Society's main goal was distributing scriptures to as
many people as possible. I'm not sure how releasing electronic copies of the
Bible could do anything but further that goal. I should clarify that I am not
looking for texts to include in a commercial product. I only wish to see free
electronic texts of international Bible translations available to anyone who
wants them. If the collection that you are working on is along those lines, I
would gladly donate time and expertise to the project. Is it possible to get in
touch with whoever is leading the MultiBible project?

>you should be aware that virtually all current translations of the Bible
>have been copyrighted either by the translators or their publishers.  For
>this reason it would be necessary for you to apply to each of the copyright
>holders for permission prior to starting such a project.  Distribution
>agreements would need to be signed with the publishers, and in most
>instances, royalty fees paid.

I am aware that most modern translations are copyrighted and  I have no
intention of distributing copyrighted material without permission to do so. 
Since I am hoping to distribute these texts and the program I create for free,
I would not be able to distribute any texts that require royalties. I contacted
the Canadian Bible Society to see if I could get permission to format and
distribute the texts to which you hold the copyright. How would I go about
applying for such permission?  Also, are there other agencies that I should be
contacting? I contacted Wycliffe first and they suggested I contact one of the
Bible Societies since Wycliffe is not primarily involved with distribution of

In Christ,

Joel Mawhorter

>I'm sorry not to be able to assist you directly in this matter, but hope
>this information will be of some use to you in the future.
>Your servant in Christ,
>Fr. Greg Bailey,
>National Director,
>Canadian Bible Society


I also sent a message to the International Bible society.  Below is that series
of messages.


Dear Sir or Madam,

I am hoping to become involved in distributing international Bibles
electronically.  In my search for what is available in this area, I found your
collection of online scriptures in various languages. I understand that these
texts are copyrighted by the IBS; however, I was quite disturbed by the portion
of your "Proper Use Statement" that restricts coping or re-posting the
scriptures. Your mission statement is "To serve the Church in evangelism and
discipleship by providing God's Word so that people around the world may come
to faith and life in Jesus Christ." How do you reconcile your mission statement
with your requirement that people not distribute your international Bible

How would you suggest the following (very likely) scenario be dealt with?  A
Chinese Christian in Mainland China is the only one in his town with an
Internet connection.  He finds your Chinese Bible and wants to give copies to
his neighbors in hopes that they will accept Christ.  He has no way to get
printed copies of the Chinese Bible from other sources.  Should he give copies
of the Bible to his neighbors and violate your "Proper Use Statement"?  Or
should he follow your requirements and decrease his effectiveness in
evangelism? Despite the respect I have for copyright law, I know what I would
do in that situation.

Please prayfully consider changing your proper use statement. The primary
goal of any society created to distribute Scriptures should be to ensure that
anyone in the world can get access to the Bible in their own language.
Electronic distribution of the Bible has a hugh potential to bring that goal
much closer.    At the moment, Bible Societies are not able to keep up with the
current demand for Bibles in many areas.  Electronic distribution removes the
per copy cost that a printed copy of the Bible has (the main thing that limits
its distribution).  As well encryption and steganography allow electronic
scriptures to be smuggled into areas where it would be impossible to provide
large numbers of printed Bibles.  Once an electronic text is in an area it can
be copied from computer to computer without any further cost.  This has the
potential to impact a large number of people for Christ!

If free electronic distribution of the Bible is something that the IBS is
planning to get into, I would gladly donate time and expertise to such a

In Christ,

Joel Mawhorter


Dear Mr. Mawhorter:

Thanks for your thoughtful inquiry a few weeks ago about our "Proper Use
Statement" on Bible Gateway. This is a subject that we talk about from time
to time, wanting to be good stewards of the treasure of God's Word.
Sometimes we tend toward allowing greater reproduction of our text, as you
urge; then again, we are well aware of the entrepreneurs in cyberspace who
would like to profiteer off the Bible, too. It's hard to strike the right

You raise a poignant example of the Christian in mainland China wanting to
distribute copies of the Bible to his or her neighbors. Of course, I suppose
I could raise an equally troubling example from China: What if the
propaganda department of the Communist Party in Beijing wanted to post
quotations from the NIV in support of the Communist regime-such bits and
pieces about sharing all things in common, giving full obedience to
government authorities, etc.? They could make quite a website to say, "See,
even the Christian Bible supports our point of view."

It is this kind of thing that cautions us from just giving carte blanche on
our Bible texts. If someone wants to make public use of the NIV, we would
like first to be asked about it and have a chance to discuss it.

Here in North America where you and I live, of course, the question is
pretty well moot. Most people have access to the Internet for themselves.
But in underdeveloped nations, I admit, the issue is more complicated.

Yet even now, we are finding that users all over Asia and the Middle East,
among other places, are benefiting from Bible Gateway. Some of the returning
e-mails would bring tears to your eyes. So we are making at least some
impact for the gospel in these areas.


Dean Merrill
Vice President & Publisher
International Bible Society


Dear Dean Merrill,

I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my e-mail. I am glad to hear
that IBS reconsiders its policy on redistribution of texts from time to time.  I
realize that there is always the risk of someone using your work and making
money from it.  However, if you change the policy to allow non-commercial
redistribution of your texts, there is no way for anyone to legally make money
from your work. 

Your point about China misusing the Bible is an interesting one. I think it is
highly unlikely that the very anti-Christian Chinese government would use the
Bible to support their views. In fact, the restrictions in place now
couldn't stop this from happening, since the NIV copyright allows quotations of
a few verses without permission; however, that is secondary.  The important
question is, why does the Internation Bible Society exist? Does it exist to
spread the Word of God or does it exist to ensure that political propaganda
groups can't misuse the Bible? I hope that the question of purpose is one that
is constantly considered by IBS. If I am not mistaken, the misson statement of
IBS is "to serve the Church in  evangelism and discipleship by providing God's
Word so that people around the world may come to faith and life in Jesus
Christ." I can't think of a better missions statement for a Bible society. I
believe that removing the restrictions on non-commercial distribution for your
on-line texts can only help you to achive your mission. There may be some small
consequences to doing so; however, none that are near as important as your
primary goal: to bring people to faith in Jesus Christ.

Please prayerfully consider allowing your on-line texts to be freely
copied for non-commercial purposes. As I mentioned in my previous e-mail,
allowing redistribution of the international translations would be especially
important. In considering your policy, please consider this: what will have the
greatest potential impact for the kingdom of God?

I would be glad to volunteer my time and experience in any project that IBS
undertakes to freely distribute electronic copies of the Bible.

In Christ,

Joel Mawhorter


Sorry that this message was so long. I hope that some of you find the info.
useful.  I am stilling trying to figure out who I should contact next. Any
suggestions would be appreciated.

Joel Mawhorter