The publicaion, use, and sharing of religious resources has been a rights issue for as far back as there has been a faith practice to transfer. One can make the call that God even enforced the first rights-management system when he declared that “I am ther Lord your God and you shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:2)” Weighty in the respect of reverence, but also in the respect of exclusivity – if there is to be a faith towards a deity, then let your faith towards this one be exculsive and binding.
To that end, the faith world has seen all kinds of challenges to doctrine, dogma, and behavior. Going digital has rekindled some old arguments and founded some new ones. In 2009, we tried to add some sense to the challenge and change that digital contexts makes in regards to copyright/licesning biblical resources. It was one part of an on-going discussion, and one where there just isn’t a clear answer. Its been an intention to add to that article some items of relevance – with a ground literally shifting often. But thankfully, others are picking up the discussion, and the mounting challenges not so much for just having access, but having access that fits the context of digital use and ownership paradigms.
The licenses that govern the use of modern versions of the Bible in English grant very limited, arbitrary permissions for the use of the content. For instance, a person may be permitted to use 250 verses of the Bible (or 500 or 1,000, depending on the publisher) but only if they do not include a complete book of the Bible in their content. The amount of Biblical text they use is usually not allowed to exceed a certain percentage (often 25%, sometimes 50%) of the complete work. The table below lists current (at the time of writing) license restrictions on some common versions of the Bible in modern English. Note that “Max. Verses” refers to the maximum number of verses that may be used, “% of Total” refers to the maximum percentage of the text in the resource that may be Biblical text, and “Complete Book?” refers to whether or not a complete book of the Bible may be used in the resource.2
Version Max. Verses % of Total Complete Book? CEB3 500 <25% No ESV4 1,000 <50% No HCSB5 250 <25% No NASB6 500 <25% No NET7 not specified <50% No NIV8 500 <25% No NKJV9 1,000 <50% No
Most licenses (though I am not aware of any exceptions) do not explicitly allow freedom beyond these specific permissions, meaning the restriction preventing the translation of the Biblical text has not been lifted. For use of the text that requires more than this—like including the complete text of a book of the Bible—the user must enter into a specific licensing agreement with the copyright holder of the Bible translation. These licensing agreements typically include the negotiations of royalties from the sale of the content back to the owner of the Bible translation.
Besides being an updated guide, towards the current challenges publishers, participants, and readers have towards digital faith-based resources, it also speaks to the problem of why there is even a greater challenge to create non-English faith resources. Simply put, law and process hasn’t kept pace with technology and behavior.
…Imagine a Christian pastor in Tehran who uses his mobile phone Bible application to search for what the Bible says about “suffering for Christ.” The pastor does not know that the free Bible he is reading on his app is only free in exchange for data about how he uses it. In fact, he cannot even do a search for “suffering” on his phone without a network connection, because his free app with the “free of charge” Bible he is reading phones home to the web service with every search he makes. And when his app phones home to an American website (a Bible website, no less), it may well trip a filter in the Great Iranian Firewall. And maybe around 2am, the pastor gets to find out firsthand what it means to suffer for Christ. Because his app phoned home. Because “free of charge” comes with a tradeoff, when it is not also accompanied by “legal freedom” at the level of content…
While I do think that in some revolutionary ways this will be addressed in my lifetime, I am also very aware that the nature of faith, data, and information lends itself to be something held close and valued towards exclusion rather than shared towards posterity. Hopefully, there can not only be a change that works for all here, but one that compensates rightly all the levels of engagement that it takes to make these resources possible to the global faith community.
Then again, is not part of the definition of religion that of a system that’s exclusive not just in application, but in information shared?