or Should Bible Translations have a Copyright ?
Hi, I’m Laura. Today I’m going to tell you why I am switching to reading the World English Bible translation of the Bible. I want to do this by giving you some background on myself and my understanding of translations and my choices over the many years, as well as a brief excursion into the economic and legal issues of it. And then what are the Biblical and Christian things that should be considered.
Let’s just start with the idea of copyright. Did you know that many of the current translations of the Bible are copyrighted? Now, this means that you are limited in how many words you can share or how you are supposed to give credit about the use of a specific translation.
Now, to be fair, I usually like knowing which translation is being referred to, so I don’t have any problem at all with attribution. To me, attribution helps with avoiding confusion and being able to reasonably discuss what is going on.
But when attribution is required as part of the way to limit how much you are able to use a certain portion of scripture, then I have a problem with it.
Let’s take just a minute to talk about what copyright is. This is covered under the broad concept of what most people call intellectual property. And if you delve into what this means and how it has to be enforced, it is both economically and socially flawed in foundational ways.
I will put some links on the website that will point you to some resources, both some books and some podcasts lectures, that go into this more.
But, in summary, it’s based on a false understanding of the idea of property. Property is something that you have a relationship with, as a person, and is a scare resource. And you have a right and an ability to control. Using the word intellectual property is an attempt to put this category of ideas and patterns of information in the same box as physical property. And it just can’t be done because when you give someone “the right,” “the license,” or whatever the government, the state, gives to intellectual property it gives you universal ownership over all other people’s scarce resources or property and how they can use them.
On one hand, this is a fairly impossible task of trying to control everybody else’s property. And on the other hand, it relies on using violence to control what other people do with their own property. It might help you understand it to put it in these terms:
Action that a person takes creates an increase or a decrease in wealth, not a difference in ownership. We can rearrange matter into more useful shapes, but creation is neither necessary nor sufficient for ownership. It can contribute value, but not ownership.
You have to already own the property, and then if you create something with it that can affect the perceived value, the subjective value, to any given person, of that property.
As I said at the beginning, if you want to investigate more into the ideas of intellectual property, look up Stephan Kinsella. He has a book called Against Intellectual Property and he also has a podcast called Stephan Kinsella On Liberty and I listened to several hours of his lectures called Rethinking Intellectual Property.
There is also a useful article on a website called mises.org, and the article is titled The Fallacy of Intellectual Property.
So now let’s talk about copyright in terms of the Bible, or the Word of God. Does copyright preserve the Bible? And is it necessary so that people who work on it can get the money that they need to live?
Well, in view of history, the idea that copyright is needed to preserve the Bible is ridiculous. It has been preserved by God in various ways for a couple of thousand years before copyright came along. It is a relatively new phenomena of legal monopoly.
And there are several older versions of Bible translations that are in the public domain because of that, including the King James Version and an older American Standard Version, which will come up again in our discussion.
Let’s talk about what else copyright does or doesn’t do. It doesn’t prevent heresy or mockery. In fact, there have been several “Bibles” that have been made to mock various translations and they have been copyrighted on their own.
Having a copyright doesn’t allow for easy corrections.
And it is also antithetical to the idea of priesthood of all believers because there’s this idea that there have to be gatekeepers in privileged positions, who are frequently basically self-appointed, much like happened in, around the 3rd century after Christ where religious organizations developed and decided they needed to be in charge of the scriptures, and hence we had the whole situation where it wasn’t available to everyone. It had to be filtered through the religious authorities.
Copyright limits distribution because it, the Bible, cannot be shared by anyone at anytime. Or printed by anyone at anytime.
And copyright IS intended to increase the income of rights holders. And we’ll talk about that a little bit more.
We all obviously need things to live. We live in a physical world. So, I am not denying that having resources is very useful and we should help people who don’t have resources.
But the Biblical model of ministry is ministry first, and then any payment or support is offered after the fact. There is never a case where payment is required to receive ministry or counsel or encouragement or the scriptures. In other words, there should be, and the Biblical precedent is, free and open access by all people to the Word of God.
Copyright is a huge hinderance to this.
There was one webpage that I visited about missions and they were talking about some publishing houses in other countries in Africa where Bibles were not being let go of because the people couldn’t pay enough money for them. So they were being denied access to Bible at all because of copyright.
So why the World English Bible? To quote those who have edited and published it:
“It is a quality translation into current English that you may use freely.”
Before I get into describing where it came from, and what their philosophy has been in producing this translation, let me tell you a little bit about my history with translations of the Bible.
I was born in the very early 1960’s and grew up with the King James Version because the whole thing with modern translations had not really come to full blossom right yet. Some parts of the King James Version were initially confusing, but I grew to understand archaic terms and meanings. And God preserved his message. The truth of what he was trying to tell became very clear to me very easily.
On a humorous side note, I think I had an easier time studying things like Shakespeare or earlier, literature from earlier centuries than other kids in school did.
So, up until I was a young adult I read and studied and discussed the King James version of the Bible. Now that included interesting things like I actually carried my Bible to school when I was about 11 or 12 years old, and I remember walking through the hall and one of the teachers stopping and being friendly and he says, “Oh, what are you reading?”
He could see the Bible. He knew I was reading the Bible. But I cheerily said, “Deuteronomy!” and I don’t think he quite knew what to do with that. It wasn’t the normal answer about what 11 and 12 year olds were excited about reading. But I found it interesting.
But, by the time that my kids were getting old enough for me to start reading the Bible to them regularly, and we taught them all at home through high school, so reading was a daily occurrence in our house, I decided that I wanted to have a better understanding of what translations were available and what I might want to use for my kids.
So I became familiar with what is now probably the commonplace scale of Biblical translations: from literal to paraphrase. And most of the time the New American Standard was on the far left as one of the most literal translations, the New International Version was in the middle, as one of the ones that kind of reached a happy medium. And then you would have things like the New Living Testament would be all the way on the paraphrase side.
I ended up choosing the New King James Version to read to my children, partly because it still had a lot of familiarity to me and because it was still in a poetic style that I enjoyed. We memorized a lot of verses from the New King James Version of the Bible. And because of my own personal tendencies and things that I like to do, I put a lot of passages to music for them to learn as songs, which they still know today and are teaching to their children, so that’s a fun thing!
Even while I was reading the New King James Version to my children on a regular basis, I decided to use the New International Version Inductive Study Bible to study the whole Bible. And I had a lot of fun doing that! I learned a lot and it didn’t alter the core of anything. I wouldn’t have any problem reading that again as a translation of the Bible.
Then I decided that I wanted to get the New American Standard Version, as being one of the more literal ones, as I said, and around that same time, a friend of mine and I decided to get together on a weekly basis. And during the week we would read two to several chapters of the Bible, depending on how thick a particular section was, and then we would get together for a couple of hours that week and just discuss what we read. We didn’t have any study guides or any other programmed way of study, it was just reading it and discussing it.
And we did some of it chronologically, and then, depending on what was going on, or how it tied into other sections, we would throw in other books of the Bible. So, we read through the Bible a couple of times that way using the New American Standard Version of the Bible.
Then, a few years ago, I started doing more thorough word studies of various words that I felt had picked up religious cliché to them or maybe had taken on extra-Biblical meanings. And you can read some of those on my Religious Vocabulary Word of the Day posts on Bible News Press.
And I used Vine’s Expository Dictionary and some other Bible dictionaries and looked up some etymology of English words online. And that is a very interesting study in and of itself.
Now, the final thing I’d like to add to my history of translations is the fact that I have been studying Chinese for about 10 years now. And I regularly translate, while I’m learning with my Chinese tutor, from Chinese to English and vice versa, to understand the Chinese language. So I have a pretty good understanding of the complications of trying to translate from one language to another.
So it is from all of this background that when I read a summary of what the World English Bible is supposed to be, what their goals are, how they came about the translation, that I feel like this is a good option. And it is a good way for being able to share the scriptures without threat of legal action by copyright!
The first edition of the World English Bible, according to their website, was put out in 1997. And it was an update of sorts of the American Standard Version from 1901, which is public domain version Biblical translation. The editors also have options for the Apocryphal and deuterocanonical books, partly as scholarly aides and partly because there are some people of Catholic or Russian Orthodox tradition who want these books available to them.
And they also do a version called the World Messianic Bible because it uses language that people who have that way of thinking use more.
But the World English Bible is not under the control or supervision of any denomination. And here’s another quote:
“We are open to comments from all who believe in Jesus Christ and who respect the Word of God as inspired by the Holy Spirit and prayerfully evaluate all of them.”
They very specifically put, made a public declaration that the World English Bible is in public domain so no one can copyright it. They maintain that God is perfectly capable of protecting His own Word.
Here is a bit of summary about their philosophy and their methods for putting together this translation:
- They wanted to convert archaic words.
- They used manual editing to put in quotation marks which were not there.
- They updated punctuation.
- They did spot checks for translations of original languages, where the meanings were unclear or there were significant textual variations.
- Many volunteers who are born again and seeking the Holy Spirit, from a variety of backgrounds helped in this.
- And many people proof read it.
All in all, this sounds a lot like what you read in the descriptions of other translations, as they describe where they come from.
Let me give you a few more specifics about how the World English Bible translation came about and what it’s based on. Again, it’s based on the original public domain, 1901, American Standard Version of the Bible, which itself was translated by 50 scholars, who themselves built on the work and study of others before them for hundreds of years.
So, nobody starts a Biblical translation from scratch without prior knowledge of how other people have been doing this.
Their work is also based on many other scholars who compiled highly accurate Hebrew and Greek texts. And they used lexicons of Hebrew, Chaldee, and Greek. They also used the United Bible Society’s handbooks on Bible translation. And they compared their work to a large number of other English translations.
They had people volunteering from across the spectrum of Christian churches or denominations to avoid sectarian bias. And the senior editor also listens to the counsel and advice from many other people. They are all praying and looking for the Holy Spirit who is still active in preserving the text and helping them.
When anybody is doing translation work they have to consider these things:
- Preserving the meaning of the sentence or thought.
- Preserving the meaning of the original words.
- Shades of implied meaning.
- The impact or tone.
- The style of the original document.
- And faithfulness to the target language that it is being translated into.
All of this comes down to trying to balance what is called the formal equivalence versus the dynamic equivalence. They believe that the World English Bible tends more toward the formal equivalence.
It is different enough from other translations to avoid copyright infringements, but similar enough that the meaning is preserved and the truths cut to the soul.
They do use the trademark World English Bible, but all that means is that they are using that as an identifier. That if you have this Bible, that’s what it is.
So, in summary, I feel very good about using the World English Bible now for recording on Bible News Press because it is translated the same way as all of the other Bibles and they are very clear about what their basis is for translation. Not only that, but I do not have to worry about copyright infringement and I can freely share the Word of God.
As I said, I will put links to the articles about intellectual property and copyrighting. And I will also put a link to the page, the website, for the World English Bible, so that you can read more thoroughly about all of their philosophy and how they went about this.
Thanks for listening, and see you next time!
Free and Open: Bibles Without Copyright Restrictions (a missions perspective)