Are you allowed to share arbitrary amounts of the Bible freely? The short answer is, it depends. In this article we'll look at the different English translations of the Bible and how their copyright and licenses affect our ability to openly share the word of God with others.
I came across this topic when wanting to build a website for Christians to share recordings of themselves reading the Bible with one another. It turns out, it's not as simple as just reading directly from your version of choice, recording a video and sharing it. Doing so would violate the licensing restrictions set out by the copyright holders of many translations.
Translations Restricted by Copyright and Licenses
Every single translation in the top 10 best sellers, excluding the KJV mentioned below, is encumbered by copyright and the restrictions set by the publishers of their versions. This includes the ESV, NIV, NLT, MSG, NKJV and many other popular modern-day translations.
The restrictions are typically that you (without express permission):
- Can quote up to ~500 verses
- Cannot reproduce entire books, and sometimes even entire chapters
- Cannot have the passages quoted make up 20-50% (depending on the version) of the work being created
There is normally no exception made to the restrictions for open source or not-for-profit usages of the translations either. Meaning any use requires requesting permission, and often having to pay for the privilege of using these translations past the above limitations.
Translations Out of Copyright
In the US, works created by authors are automatically given copyright up until 70 years after their death, or in the case of companies, 95 years after the work is publicised. It used to be a shorter term, but we can thank Walt Disney and others for their efforts in prolonging works entering the public domain. Australia has similar copyright laws to the US.
This means that any work prior to 1926 is automatically in the public domain and there are no restrictions on usage. This, of course, includes the contents of the original Greek (New Testament) and Hebrew (Old Testament) scripts (although not the newer critical text). The most popular English Bible translation in the public domain is the original King James Version (KJV), although it still has redistribution/printing restrictions in the United Kingdom. There are some other translations in the public domain, but most Christians are not familiar with them, such as Duoay-Rheims (DRC), Young's Literal (YLT), and the Darby Bible (DBY).
Where things get most interesting, is the translations that do allow you to share them freely, regardless of your use case. The most complete of these is the World English Bible (WEB), published in 2000. Although copyright would still exist for such a modern work, it was expressly made with the intent of being deeded into the public domain. This means that everyone is free to use and distribute it as they see fit without any restriction; see their copyright page. This makes the WEB and WEBBE (British Edition, using "the LORD" instead of "Yahweh") prime candidates for use in building a web application.
There also exists an open source Bible translation, available under a CC0 license called the Open English Bible (OEB). The source is available on GitHub, complete with an issue tracker for people to discuss the translation. The biggest downside to this translation is that only the New Testament + Psalms + 12 other OT books are actually translated. This limitation makes it difficult to build into a tool where users should be able to read from the entire Bible. The main benefit to a translation of this format is that discussion and work on the translation is open to all members of the public, not a restricted set of individuals.
One other translation that deserves special mention, although copyright is not specifically waived for it, is the New English Translation (NET) Bible. The NET Bible allows non-commercial use of any portion of the work, so long as proper attribution is provided. This makes it suitable for building into a web application, although it isn't truly "free" in the sense that people aren't allowed to take the translations and modify it in any way.
Should the Bible be Open?
Now we know the lay of the land when it comes to how "open" certain Bible translations are, let's take a step back and look at the theology of it all. As Christians we know that Christ gave us the mandate to share the word.
He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to the whole creation." - Mark 16:15 (WEBBE)
We also know that those "who labour in the word" deserve their fair wage.
17 Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in the word and in teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox when it treads out the grain.” And, “The labourer is worthy of his wages.” - 1 Timothy 5:17-18 (WEBBE)
We have to weigh these up. Most of the modern copyright-restricted translations fall on the side of restricting open sharing without permission. The flip side of this is that because of royalties received, there is more money backing the development and distribution of these translations more widely (improved translations, more books printed, further distribution globally, etc).
In the end, it comes down to an individual viewpoint. Maybe for your personal consumption of the word you find it best to read a certain version, which is perfectly fine, as it supports the organization that put work into creating that version. It is, however, worth considering an open version like the World English Bible, if you would like to be able to openly share the word without restriction. This can come in handy especially if you are producing any works for sharing, for church ministry materials, for digital ministry, or even ministering person-to-person.
Many of the modern English translations of the Bible are restricted in ways that believers can openly share them. There are a select few translations that allow open sharing, the World English Bible, the Open English Bible and the New English Translation (but only for non-commercial purposes). There are also several public domain translations that can be used, but are often difficult for people to read due to their historic nature.