By Bennett L. McMordie, ed. by Barry Neil Shrum
“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. . . . [F]or the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”
Romans 13:1-7 (ESV)
It is perhaps an irony that my use of Paul’s words concerning the respect owed to the authority of government may, in fact, be an infringement of a particular government’s copyright!
More to the point, is the fact I quoted these verses from the English Standard Version of the Bible copyright infringement? One would think not, as the original disparate writers of the assembled Hebrew and Greek texts that make up our modern Scripture have been deceased for centuries now, and their individual works were created long before any type of copyright protection was ever imagined, must less applicable. In fact, the first copyright statute, the Statute of Anne, would not be passed by Parliament until 1709, while the earliest extant fragments of any type of scripture are fragments containing Hebrew texts which date back to the 2nd century BCE.
The myriad translations of the Bible that are around today — over 400 English translations have been created over time, including popular versions such as the New International Version, the Good News Translation, the New American Standard Version, The Message — are registered by their respective publishers as copyrights in the United States.
So, if a preacher quotes scripture aloud in church, or reprints a couple of inspirational verses in his weekly newsletter, is the minister committing willful copyright infringement? Fortunately, he is not, but only by virtue of licensing. While most all translations of the Bible are copyrighted, their publishers allow people to copy them freely, howbeit with certain limitations. For example, the publishers of the New American Standard version allow a person to copy as much as 500 verses without prior written, so long as the total amount copied is less than 25% of the total new work created. Other publishers take a similar approach, allowing a person to publish 1,000 verses totaling less than 50% of the work. The rationale behind this policy is that it allows the public to use the Bible freely while preventing blatant reproduction of the entire text.
Perhaps one of the more intriguing examples of a protected version of the Scriptures the most popular version of the Bible, the King James Version, which is still protected by copyright law despite the fact that it was published over 400 years ago.
The rights to the KJV, initially published in 1611, are still owned by the English monarchy, under their so-called “Crown Copyright” laws. The Copyright Act 1911 provided specific protection for government works prepared or published by or under the direction or control of the Monarch or of any Government department, specifically including the KJV.
Now, lest there be a revolution, there’s no need to get your “knickers in a wad” if you’re a non-Brit: the King James Version is in the public domain everywhere else in the world. Still, the concept of a government holding copyrights indefinitely can feel a little strange, especially if you’re from the U.S., where Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 limits the grant of a copyright for “a limited time.” Unlike England where copyright concepts are based on natural rights, U.S. laws are based upon the utilitarian principle that incentivizing creative endeavors for a limited time and then passing them into the public domain sustains society’s interest in a fluid marketplace of ideas.
But in England, only two publishers possess the rights to print the King James Bible: the Queen’s Printer (now the Oxford University Press) and the Scottish Bible Board; all others must receive a letter patent from the Crown to legally print the KJV .
Should governments be allowed to hold copyrights?
Ownership of copyright by a government entity begs a larger question: shouldn’t works that were created for the public, using the people’s tax dollars, be available for public copying and use? This is certainly the case in the U.S., where §105 of the 1976 Act prohibits ownership of “any work of the United States Government,” which is defined in §101 as “a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties.” The effect of section 105 is intended to place all works of the United States Government, published or unpublished, in the public domain.
This prohibition only applies to works created by the U.S. on its own soil, and does not apply to works created in foreign countries, as most governments are entitled to copyright protections in their works. Thus, it would be unfair not to allow protection for U.S. works in that situation. Currently in Great Britain, works that are commissioned by the government are protected for 125 years from creation, or 50 years after publishing.
The KJV states: “and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32). Now that the truth is known, shouldn’t the King James Bible be free to the descendants of King James?
Bennett McMordie is currently a student in Mr. Shrum’s Copyright Law class at Belmont University in Nashville, TN, where he is earning a degree in Music Business. He loves all things music, most things business, and also enjoys playing bass for the CJ Solar Band.