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7. The Word of God, Restricted

The Bible is essential for spiritual growth and is the foundation on which every other discipleship resource is built. When the only translations of the Bible in the language of a people group are not available under open licenses, it can hinder the spiritual growth of that people group because it establishes a single point of failure for every discipleship resource in that language built on it. This, in turn, can hinder how freely and effectively the Word of God can be used and built on by others to create discipleship resources for fostering the spiritual maturity of people who speak that language. In addition, not even the speakers of that language can legally revise Bible translations that are under copyright without permission from the copyright owners. Apart from ongoing revision, language change will result in the Bible translation itself eventually ceasing to be useful to the speakers of the language.

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A missionary working with an oral people group called the Tingat1 realized that the people he was serving had a problem. The Bible had been translated into their language, but it was doing them very little good. Since most of the people were oral communicators and did not read, the printed Word of God was as useless to them as if it had never been translated.

“But,” the missionary thought, “If they could hear the translation as an audio Bible, it would be very effective for them. Literacy would no longer be a prerequisite to discipleship and spiritual growth.” So he started work with one of the pastors in the people group who was able to read the language. The plan was to record the pastor reading the Bible in his own language, then distribute the audio recordings as MP3 files via the Internet and by sharing them from mobile phone to mobile phone. The pastor was overjoyed at the thought of being able to “bridge the gap” between the printed Word of God and the people who could not read it.

But just before starting the recording sessions, the missionary thought of something. His idea of recording the Bible as audio files and giving them away was an ideal solution to the problem, but would doing so without permission from the copyright holder be legal? He was aware that copyright law in the 21st century is a serious matter and he wanted to live in submission to the ruling authorities. So he decided to pursue things through the correct, legal channels. Rather than make the recordings and hope to “get forgiveness” after the fact, he took the honorable route and attempted to get in touch with the organization that owned the copyright to the translation of the Bible in that language.

This, it turned out, was much easier said than done. It took him seven months of sending emails all over the globe to find out who even owned the copyright on the translation of the Bible and who, in the massive bureaucracy of the organization that owned the copyright, had the authority to grant him permission. Finally, after numerous rounds of emails, the missionary learned that he needed to talk to the organization’s office in the country where he served.

So the next morning, he hopped on the bus and went down to their offices. He walked in, greeted them, and explained the reason for his visit.

“Brothers,” he said, “I am a missionary working with the Tingat people. As you know, you own the rights to the translation of the Bible in Tingat and I am here to ask permission to use the translation for ministry. I would like to record the Bible and give the audio recordings away for free over the Internet and on the mobile phones of the Tingat people. I am sure there will be no problem, since we share a common goal of making the Word of God available to the Tingat people, but I wanted to ask permission just the same.”

“That is a fine idea!” they replied. “Here is what you need to do: write up a memorandum of understanding that clearly explains what our percentage of the royalties will be, then get back to us.”

“I don’t think I have explained myself clearly,” the missionary said. “There won’t be any royalties because we are going to do the work for free and give the audio files away for free to all the people. Won’t it be great? There will be no obstacle preventing the Tingat people from hearing the Word of God in their own language!”

“Now we understand!” they exclaimed. “Here is what you need to do: write up a memorandum of understanding that clearly explains what our percentage of the royalties will be, then get back to us.”

The missionary was in a dilemma. Without putting together a business model for selling access to the Word of God, he would not be able to get permission from the owners of the copyright to the Tingat translation of the Bible. But requiring payment for access to digital audio files (that cost him virtually nothing to copy and redistribute) would create an obstacle for the Tingat people, who needed unrestricted access to Word of God in their language. What was he to do?

Some would argue that he should obey God rather than man and just do it—make the recordings and distribute them for free. Others, however, see this as blatant theft, regardless of how onerous such restrictions may be. The people who work in the organization that owns the copyright to the translated Bible in Tingat have families and need to provide for them too. Stealing from them to meet someone else’s needs is not an ethical solution. Both sides have valid points and there is no easy solution to this problem.

A Single Point of Failure for the Global Church

A single point of failure is a part of a system that, if it fails, will stop the entire system from working. Think of a high-performance sports car, aerodynamically shaped, with a perfectly tuned engine that puts out hundreds of horsepower. Now imagine that you have lost the key for the sports car (and, for the sake of argument, that you do not have a spare key or know how to hot–wire a car). The key is a single point of failure for the sports car, because without it, all the intricate design that makes it fast, powerful, and effective is little more than a chunk of metal, plastic, and glass in your driveway.

The spiritual growth and nourishment of the global church has a single point of failure as well: the Word of God. Without the Word of God, there is no lasting and deep spiritual growth. Without the Word of God, the Church is weak, powerless, hamstrung. One of the least-realized but most significant impediments to the advance of the Word of God has to do with limitations placed on Bible translations and enforced by copyright law.

This is not an intentional, malicious limitation. As we have already seen, it has only been in the last decade or so that a viable alternative to “all rights reserved” was created. In recent years, and at an accelerating pace, new technologies have also been invented that create unprecedented opportunities to accelerate the advance of God’s Kingdom in every people group. But making the most of these opportunities depends on open-licensed Bible translations.

The story of the missionary working with the Tingat people is a true story, and one of countless others like it, in languages all over the world. Translated Scripture in thousands of languages is legally restricted by man-made rules that prevent it from being used as needed and without hindrance for the equipping of the Church. The organizations who own the copyrights to these translations of the Bible were not established to restrict access to it, they were established to make the Word of God accessible to everyone. How, then, did things get turned around? How is it that the organizations in the best position to solve the problem are sometimes the ones inadvertently perpetuating the problem?

To find answers to these questions, we will look in an unexpected place: carpools.

Accidentally Committed to Preserving the Problem

Transportation has been a problem looking for a solution for as long as man has walked the earth. Modes and means have changed through the centuries, but the problem is still essentially the same: How do I get from one point to another efficiently and inexpensively? With the invention of the automobile, efficiency of transportation increased greatly. But for people who travel long distances frequently, it can also be a costly means of transportation.

One solution to the problem of expensive travel is the carpool. By sharing the same vehicle among several people, the cost for each person making the trip goes down significantly. But carpooling has been hindered by an information problem. How do you find out who has a car, is going where you need to go, and is willing to give you a ride for a price on which you both agree?

It used to be that this was a difficult problem to solve, because manually coordinating drivers and riders was tedious and time-consuming. So carpooling tended to work on a small scale—people from the same company and living in the same neighborhoods, for instance. In order for carpooling to work on a large scale, there did not need to be more cars and carpoolers. There needed to be better information about the cars and carpoolers already in existence.

PickupPal was invented to meet this need. The PickupPal web service helped coordinate drivers and carpoolers by sharing enough information about each to make the carpooling system work. A driver could advertise a route they drive and people looking for a ride could search for a route that would work for them. Prices were negotiated via the website and an agreed-upon ride was coordinated when there was a match that was acceptable to both parties. PickupPal used the Internet to enable the participants in the process to coordinate themselves, thus removing the inconvenience of organizing a carpool by providing better information about the cars and carpoolers already in existence. It was a fast and efficient solution to an age-old problem, so it is no surprise that many people began to use the service to coordinate rides.

But not everyone was thrilled about the service provided by PickupPal. Bus companies, in particular, were not impressed that people could now negotiate long-distance rides between cities using private parties instead of riding the bus. In May 2008, a bus company called Trentway-Wagar in Ontario did something about it. They reported PickupPal to the Ontario Highway Transport Board, claiming it provided an illegal transportation service. They cited Section 11 of the Ontario Public Vehicles Act that defined the parameters for legal carpooling, and claimed that PickupPal was in violation of them.

In the hearings that followed, it quickly became apparent that the changes and new opportunities brought on by the Internet were not yet understood by the Highway Transportation Board.

At one point in the proceedings, Mr. Dewhirst [the founder of PickupPal] had to explain to the board that an online forum is an Internet site where people can go to discuss a particular topic. In another instance, members of the board were flabbergasted when they suggested a change be made to PickupPal and Mr. Dewhirst offered to make the update on his computer right there in the room… “The government has been blindsided by the technology, and the world has changed around them,” he said.2

The Ontario Highway Transport Board upheld Trentway-Wagar’s complaint, fined PickupPal for infractions of the Public Vehicles Act and ordered them to stop operations in Ontario. It did not matter that PickupPal provided a convenient service at a lower cost to the general public. It did not matter that they were able to leverage new technology that had not even been invented when the original laws were written. They were in violation of the law that upheld the way things had always been done and, according to those still doing things the way they had always been done, PickupPal needed to be closed down.

This story illustrates an important point. The bus companies were established to solve a specific problem: the problem of transportation. Arranging for transportation was inconvenient, and information that could establish a more convenient solution on a large scale, like carpooling, was unavailable. Bus companies were an innovative solution to the problem, largely because other solutions were not yet technologically possible.

When the technology was invented to remove the same inconvenience and enable a new means of solving the same problem—one that bypassed the bus companies—this was seen as a threat to the existence of the companies that had been founded to solve the problem. Bus companies solved the problem of transportation in the most affordable and efficient means possible, given the technology of the time. But when new technology was invented that provided a vastly more affordable and efficient solution, the need for the bus companies as the exclusive means of solving the problem was diminished. The bus industry felt the threat acutely, and understandably so. Clay Shirky explains:

Trentway-Wagar was arguing that because carpooling used to be inconvenient, it should always be inconvenient, and if that inconvenience disappeared, then it should be reinserted by legal fiat. Curiously, an organization that commits to helping society manage a problem also commits itself to the preservation of that same problem, as its institutional existence hinges on society’s continued need for its management. Bus companies provide a critical service—public transportation—but they also commit themselves, as Trentway-Wagar did, to fending off competition from alternative ways of moving people from one place to another.3

It is not just bus companies that can inadvertently become committed to the preservation of the problem they exist to solve, in order to ensure their own continued existence. The world is changing rapidly and many other sectors of society—including publishing, entertainment, and education (among many others)—are undergoing massive changes, whether or not they want to.

Once you see this pattern—a new story rearranging people’s sense of the possible, with the incumbents the last to know—you see it everywhere. First, the people running the old system don’t notice the change. When they do, they assume it’s minor. Then that it’s a niche. Then a fad. And by the time they understand that the world has actually changed, they’ve squandered most of the time they had to adapt.4

Ministries that translate the Bible and help create discipleship resources are also finding themselves in a similar situation.

Of Bus Companies and Bible Translation

Ever since the authoring of the original Biblical texts, Christians have faced a problem: how can the whole Church get access to the texts? At first, it required painstakingly writing out copies of the texts by hand. With the invention of Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press, copies of the Bible (as well as other discipleship resources) could be printed rapidly at far less cost. Martin Luther, and other Reformation leaders, realized the value of this new technology. Richard Cole notes that “Luther realized the tremendous power of printers and their products; words in print became virtual missiles on the battlefield of ideas... Luther sensed that he was riding the crest of a printing boom and a wave of a relatively new technology.”5

For five centuries, this model for creating and distributing content would persist as the most viable model for making the Word of God available to the global church. The technology of the printing press improved the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of distributing content, but that content still existed as “paper” (printed books). Because of this, the process of providing access to the Bible was still unavoidably characterized by a high degree of inconvenience. It required translating the Bible into the desired language, then printing and binding the translation as a book, then providing physical access to the book. Providing access traditionally included filling out order forms, shipping the books, paying duties, getting through customs, acquiring and stocking warehouses with the books, stocking book stores with them, and selling copies to customers.

Bible translation organizations and other related ministries, like publishers and Bible societies, were specifically invented to manage this inconvenience. These organizations served as intermediaries—the only channels through which the Word of God was available. Their purpose was to provide optimal access to the Word of God at the lowest cost. In this way, everyone (in theory, at least) could get access to the Bible in their own language as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.

This goal of efficiency and cost-effectiveness was constrained by the current technology of the time. Many of these organizations were founded many years ago, before the advent of digital technology, mobile phones and the Internet. Consequently, the content creation and distribution models on which these organizations were built reflect the technology of Gutenberg’s era.

With the rise of the digital era, the inconvenience of creating and delivering physical, printed Bibles can be avoided. The Gutenberg-era model for creation and distribution of Bible translations is no longer the only means of solving the problem. In the digital era, delivery of digital copies of the same Bibles over the Internet to mobile phones anywhere in the world is nearly instantaneous, virtually free, and can be done by anyone. The need for a dedicated organization whose specific purpose is to function as a “middleman” is diminished, because the inconvenience that was unavoidable in the “paper” era no longer exists in the digital era.

Now that digital technology greatly diminishes the inconvenience, the entities who own the translations and managed the inconvenience on behalf of the global church in the previous era are faced with a choice. Either they welcome the new technologies and opportunities of the digital era, or they maintain their historical exclusivity and control of the content through legal means.

This can be a difficult choice to make, as both of the options have significant implications. Further muddying the waters is the fact that copyright law makes the second option (leveraging copyright for exclusivity) the default choice. “All rights reserved” happens automatically when the translation is created, and the restrictions persist for decades. Unless a copyright holder intentionally chooses to embrace the technology-fueled opportunities of the digital era by releasing their Bible translation under an open license, the second option prevails by default: the content is restricted and cannot be used in ways that take full advantage of the opportunities in the digital world.

Is it possible that, in the digital world, maintaining exclusive control over translations of the Bible (by leveraging copyright law) perpetuate the problem instead of resolving it? Owners of Bible translations in these contexts may find themselves in the position of being the gatekeeper (preventing access and use), instead of the facilitator (maximizing access and use). Because of the laws of men that govern such things, the owners of Bible translations could inadvertently hinder the Gospel, by virtue of the fact that they maintain the default “all rights reserved” of copyright law.

Do not misunderstand—this is not an indictment of copyright holders or an accusation of malicious intent on anyone’s part. The point is not that there is a conscious, concerted effort to restrict access to the Word of God by leveraging copyrights. The point is that the explosion of new opportunities afforded by digital technology and the Internet caught everyone by surprise. Copyright law, however, has changed little in the last three centuries (except, as some would argue, to become more restrictive and enduring). This combination of restrictive laws governing copyright and the immense advances in digital technology has turned the tables on the whole paradigm for solving the problem of providing access to the Word of God. Through no fault of their own, owners of Bible translations may find themselves the single point of failure that can enable or prevent unrestricted use of translations of the Bible. And the default is already set for them to “prevent unrestricted use.”

This is what happened in the story at the start of this chapter about the missionary wanting to make an audio recording of the Bible for use by the Tingat people group. Using off-the-shelf, inexpensive technology, he could easily have created an audio Bible from the translation of the Bible in that language. The audio files could then have been distributed for free over the Internet and from mobile phone to mobile phone by anyone, without hindrance.

But because of the absence of permission from the owner of the Bible in that language (whether by a specific license or an “open” license), he was legally prevented from doing so. The organization that had been created to manage the inconvenience of access to printed Bibles used their legal power over that Bible translation to ensure the continued inconvenience of access to the Word of God. If people could get free access to the Bible through digital means from other sources (and then share those digital files with others without going through their organization first), it would terminate the organization’s role as the exclusive channel through which the Word of God was available. And that, they were unwilling to allow.

The epilogue to the story of PickupPal and the Trentway-Wagar bus company is relevant here as well. The legal hearing regarding PickupPal generated a lot of attention. Gas prices were high at the time, the economy was in a downturn, and environmental concern was on the rise. The public took the side of PickupPal and got the message out using everything from online petitions to T-shirts. And the message was heard.

Within weeks of Trentway-Wagar’s victory that shut down PickupPal’s operations in Ontario, the Public Vehicles Act was amended by the Ontario legislature to make PickupPal legal again. This was the worst-case scenario for Trentway-Wagar. Not only was PickupPal now a legal means of travel, but the bus company had made a very negative impression on the general public. They were seen as the “bad guys” who were against the advance of technology and improved means of travel.

Contrary to what Trentway-Wagar may have feared, however, PickupPal’s new-found legality did not cause them to go out of business. Even though carpooling between cities was now legal, the bus company did not cease to exist. It turns out that there is still a role for bus companies, even in a society where technology has made carpooling far more efficient and effective. Bus companies still fill an important role in solving the problem of transportation, even though bus travel is no longer the exclusive solution to the problem. Society has re-negotiated the role of the bus company in society, but the role has not been abolished.

In the same way, there will continue to be a need for organizations who provide access to the translated Word of God in the digital era—even when translations of the Word of God are released under open licenses so that every obstacle preventing their access and use is removed. That role will look different than it did in the “paper” era, when there was no other way to solve the inconvenience of access to the Word of God. But the need for Bible translation organizations, Bible publishers, and Bible societies will continue to exist.

One of the most ironic principles governing the digital era is this:

The one who gives away the most, first, wins.

This is especially true for organizations who hold the copyrights to crucial discipleship resources like translations of the Word of God. Now that digital technology removes the inconvenience that existed in the “paper” era, a good course of action available to those who hold the copyrights to the translated Word of God is to go boldly into the digital age and lead the way into a future of unrestricted freedom for anyone to use the Word of God, without hindrance. Contrary to what they might fear, not only will this fulfill their mandate, but doing so may also be the best way of establishing their role and continuing importance in the digital future of the global church.

More Than a “Free Download”

A common response to the need for increased access to the Word of God for people all over the world is to provide free access to it. Free downloads of digital Bibles are helpful and a good step in the right direction. But they do not solve the ultimate problem of equipping the global church from every people group and in every language with adequate discipleship resources for spiritual growth and maturity. Here is why.

The Bible is the foundation and source of every other discipleship resource. Merely providing free access to a translated Bible does not provide the necessary legal freedom for others to incorporate the Bible text into other discipleship resources, translate them, and redistribute them by any means, without restriction. In many common versions of the Bible in English, for example, permission is granted for only limited use of the Bible text. To illustrate, these are the terms of use for the New International Version of the Bible in English:

The NIV text may be quoted in any form (written, visual, electronic or audio), up to and inclusive of five hundred (500) verses without express written permission of the publisher, providing the verses do not amount to a complete book of the Bible nor do the verses quoted account for twenty-five percent (25%) or more of the total text of the work in which they are quoted.6

The terms of use for other translations are similar. Some are more permissive, allowing use of up to 1,000 verses. But some are even more restrictive, permitting only 250 verses of the complete text.

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.7

Version Max. Verses % of Total Complete Book?
AMP 8 500 <25% No
ESV 9 1,000 <50% No
HCSB 10 250 <20% No
NASB 11 1,000 <50% No
NET 12 not specified <50% No
NIV 13 500 <25% No
NKJV 14 250 <50% No

Table 1: Terms of Use of Selected English Bibles

Under these terms of use, if a person wants to write a book on the sovereignty of God, or create a leadership training curriculum, they are free to use up to a specific number of verses (e.g. 500) of the translated Bible without permission, but not if the total amount of verse text used in the book exceeds a set percentage (e.g. 25%) of the book. Nor can their work include a complete book of the Bible.

To exceed these permissions, the creator of the discipleship resource must enter into a formal agreement with the copyright holder of that translation of the Word of God. The terms of the agreement are negotiated, but the copyright holder holds all the cards. The author of the discipleship resource has no recourse if the terms of the agreement are not agreeable.

Building on a Restricted Foundation

Ignoring, for a moment, the irony of having too much Scripture in a discipleship resource, consider the implications of such situations. In most languages that have Scripture translated, there is only one version of the Bible and it is owned by one copyright holder. The problem with having a single gatekeeper that determines who can do what with the Word of God is that anyone who wants to create discipleship resources in that language is completely dependent on the good graces of the entity who owns the copyright on it.

Without broad and irrevocable legal freedoms in place that permit unrestricted use of the translation of the Bible in that language, the creation and distribution of discipleship resources that promote the spiritual growth of the people who speak that language can be held hostage by a single entity with the law on their side. This is not a scenario conducive to the unrestricted and rapid spiritual growth of a people group.

For instance, what happens if someone wants to create a children’s Bible that culls key stories from the translation of the Bible and simplifies the language used in them? This is a derivative work of the original translation, and derivative works are a right reserved exclusively for the copyright holder. In order for this resource to be created, there must be a license that permits it. What if, for whatever reason, the copyright holder of the Bible translation says “no” to the request for use of the Bible? What if they set conditions on the creation of the derivative work that conflict with the purposes and motivations of the person creating the derivative work? This is what happened with the missionary to the Tingat people at the beginning of this chapter. He was unable to create a free and unrestricted audio version of the Bible because the copyright holder wanted him to provide them with a revenue stream from it.

A license is necessary if someone wants to create any discipleship resources that incorporates significant amounts of the Biblical text, like a commentary, or a study Bible, or an interlinear Bible, or an audio Bible, or Bible story videos, or a concordance, and so on. The creation of works like these is only legally permissible if the gatekeeper who holds the copyright on the Word of God permits it. In a perfect world, this would not be a problem. But we do not live in a perfect world and this kind of scenario—which is the norm all over the world—creates all sorts of problems.

Recall the number of steps involved in getting permission to use a copyrighted resource like a translation of the Bible. The long, tedious legal process of getting permission from the gatekeeper hinders how readily and effectively the Word of God can be used. It also assumes that the gatekeeper will grant permission to use the Bible. But what if they do not? What if they are of a different denominational persuasion or have a particular theological bias and see it as their God-given duty to prevent the “heresy” espoused by the other denomination from being disseminated through the discipleship resource they are creating? Given the intensity of disagreements like these, are they likely to grant legal permission to those of a conflicting viewpoint? What if they have a strong motivation for financial recompense from the derivative works created using “their” translation of the Word of God? Even if such motivations are not inherently immoral, they can easily become an obstacle that prevents the creation of discipleship resources for the spiritual growth of a people group.

What if the owner of the Bible translation grants permission but in such a way that they put themselves in a position to control the distribution and existence of the discipleship resource in the future? This is not a hypothetical situation. It happened to a Bible scholar recently who wanted to create a commentary of the entire New Testament. This commentary helped explain the difficult passages in the New Testament, but, being a commentary on the Bible text, needed to include many Bible verses in it.

He contacted the copyright holder of the translation he wanted to use and requested permission to use their Bible translation in his commentary. They granted him permission, but it was not perpetual. He was only granted a time-limited license that permitted him to use the Bible translation in his commentary for a few years. His commentary had a shelf life, and after the expiration date, he would need to reapply for permission to continue publishing his commentary. If the owner of the Bible translation did not renew his license to use their Bible, his continued distribution of the discipleship resource he created for the growth of the global church would be illegal.

Not only that, if the author of the commentary wants to release it under an open license to maximize legal redistribution of it, he cannot do so. He has an exclusive agreement between himself and the owner of the Bible translation. He is free to release his own content under an open license, but his own content is inextricably intertwined with the translation of the Bible, because it is a commentary.

The problems continue. What if the author wants to continue to make the commentary freely available, but the holder of the copyright on the Bible starts to demand royalties? Because his discipleship resource is built on their Bible translation, they have the legal power to restrict access to and reuse of the content that he created.

The Urgent Need for Open-Licensed Bible Translations

Situations like this one illustrate why the lack of open-licensed translations of the Bible may be the single greatest obstacle restricting the spiritual growth of the global church. The default “all rights reserved” restrictions on the Word of God prevent the free and unrestricted use, re-use, and legal building upon the translation of the Word of God. This creates a real hindrance to the spiritual growth of the global church.

Missionaries and visitors to the developing world can testify to the fact that many (some would say most) seminaries and Bible colleges in developing nations have inadequate discipleship resources in their language. There is a reason for this. There is a reason that the global church persists in a spiritual famine of historic proportions. The restrictions that limit the usefulness of the Word of God in the digital age are a significant part of the problem.

The current context of “all rights reserved” on the Word of God is a situation that is unsustainable for a global church that is poised for explosive growth and in dire need of discipleship resources in thousands of languages. There must be both free access to the translated Word of God and the legal freedom to use it without restriction or prerequisite authorization by an entity that functions as a gatekeeper. The global church must be pre-cleared to use the Word of God in their own language for anything, without restriction, and without the direct legal oversight of any human organization. They are, and will continue to be, accountable to God for what they do with His Word.

There is also an urgent need for an open-licensed version of the Bible in English that is comprehensible by second-language speakers of English. The vast majority of discipleship resources that would be tremendously helpful to the global church are written in English. A growing number of people who own the copyrights on these discipleship resources are ready to release them under an open license. But they are unable to do so because there does not (yet) exist an open-licensed English Bible that they can use in place of the copyright-restricted text.15

When a Bible Translation Expires

There is another reason that translations of the Bible in other languages must be released under open licenses, if the global church is to be allowed to grow spiritually and without hindrance. It is a serious but subtle problem: Bible translations expire. A finished translation of the Bible in a given language is not finished for all time. It has an expiration date, but not one having to do with copyright restrictions. This expiration date has to do with how languages change, but translations of the Bible do not. As time progresses, Bible translations need to be revised or they fall out of usefulness to the speakers of that language.

A few weeks into the Uturuva Bible translation project in Papua New Guinea, we made a startling discovery. We had started the translation project from scratch, even creating an alphabet and writing system for the language. It was exciting to think that the speakers of the Uturuva language were finally going to be able to understand the Word of God in their own language, for the first time in all of history! Except, as we found out, that was not quite the case. Imagine our shock when we discovered that the translation of the New Testament in that language had been completed and published only twenty years before.

How discouraging! Here we had gone to all this work to start a brand new translation project—in a language that already had a complete New Testament. I asked the Papua New Guineans on the translation team about the existing translation and they told me they had known about it. “But,” they told me, “we cannot understand it.”

We found a copy of the New Testament and I asked them to read it. They gave it their best effort, but could only haltingly make out some of the words. “It’s like it is not our language,” they said.

What had happened? How could it be that a translation of the New Testament, that was of the highest quality when it was published, could—in twenty short years—became unusable to the people who speak that language? There may be many factors contributing to the problem, but one of the most significant factors has to do with what we addressed previously regarding language change.

Frozen Bible Translations

The implications of language change for the translation of the Bible and other discipleship resources are enormous. Recall that more than half of the languages in the world have fewer than 10,000 speakers and are comprised of primarily oral communicators. Although many of these languages will experience language change at a relatively rapid pace, translation of discipleship resources into these smaller languages is often treated as a “one time” event. The goal is usually a finished “product” that, it might be assumed, will be effective forever.

But this is not what actually happens. Even after the publication of a translation of the Bible or a discipleship resource in a language, the language itself continues to change over time. Eventually, the language will have changed so significantly that the translated discipleship resource is no longer useful to the speakers of the language. The Bible translation in their language has become separated from the modern form of the language—a historic relic of a previous form of the language that is no longer in use by anyone.

This problem is further complicated by the fact that many of the languages in the world are spoken by oral people groups. Merely giving such people groups a printed, text-based discipleship resource does not immediately slow down the rate of change.

Researchers studying oral people groups have found that for a people group to transition from being primarily oral communicators (0% literate) to having a literacy rate of just 30% often takes over a century. During that period of time, a printed Bible or other discipleship resource does them very little good, since the majority cannot read it. Making audio recordings of the Bible is a helpful bridge, but their language is still likely to change significantly over time. Unless the translation (and recording) is updated periodically, it is at risk of eventually passing completely out of use, because its usefulness at a linguistic level diminishes over time.

This was a significant part of the problem we ran into with the Uturuva translation team. The translation of the Bible into their language had been completed twenty years previously. Twenty years is the approximate length of a generation in many parts of the world where these smaller languages are spoken. So it is no surprise that the translation of the Bible into the Uturuva language—spoken by a primarily oral people group—needed to be revised within two decades after it was published. In order for their translation to continue to be effective, it needed to be revised after only one generation. This is significant, especially in light of the fact that many translations of the Bible in many languages around the world are already 3-4 generations old. It is highly likely that many of them already need significant revision before they will continue to be useful to the speakers of those languages.

Needed: An Updated Revision

By way of summary, we have seen that, while languages are dynamic and change over time, a discipleship resource that is translated into a given language does not change. It is static and impervious to the forces that affect the language into which it was translated. This means that, over time, the clarity with which the translated discipleship resource communicates Biblical truth for the people who speak that language decreases. Given enough time, the language can change right out from under it, rendering the resource as useless to that people group as the Bible verses in the Anglo-Saxon Proto-English Manuscripts are to speakers of modern English today.

In order for a discipleship resource to continue to be effective for a people group, it needs to be revised periodically. The revision process updates a translation so that it reflects the changes that have occurred in the language since the publication of the discipleship resource. The revision may substitute modern forms of words for their historical counterparts in the original translation. Grammar structures may also be updated to reflect modern sentence structures. By periodically updating the language used in a translation of a discipleship resource, the resource will continue to be optimally effective for those who speak the current form of that language, instead of locking the resource into a historical form of the language that gradually fades out of use.

Needed: A Corrected Revision

In addition to updating the language used in a discipleship resource, the revision process provides an opportunity to correct mistakes found in the previous versions. No matter how hard a translator tries, the first version of a translation is rarely perfect. This is especially true for Bible translations in minority languages that do not have a well-established writing system and literate tradition. The Bible is a linguistically complex text, and the potential for inadvertently including errors in the first version of a translation is very high.

Christians from another people group in Papua New Guinea found this out the hard way. They had waited years for a translation of the Bible in their own language, but instead of great rejoicing when it was finished, there was intense disappointment. For some reason, the translation of the Bible in their language had unfortunately used the “k” sound in many words where a “g” sound should have been used instead. They could not read the translation out loud in church the way it was written because the errors made it sound like baby talk. “It is hard,” they said, “to read the Word of God in church when everyone is laughing so hard they can not even hear you.”

The discovery of problems in a published translation of the Bible is not a new phenomenon. In 1631, a printing of the King James Version Bible left out the word “not” from Exodus 20:14 and turned the seventh commandment into something altogether different than what was intended: “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Some years later, another printing of the Bible was discovered to have numerous errors, including in 1 Corinthians 6:9, which read: “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God?”

Translation procedures and printing technology continue to improve, but the fact remains that translations of the Bible are often found to have problems that need to be corrected. The problems can include anything from simple spelling errors and grammatical mistakes to syncretistic doctrine introduced by translating the name for Jesus as the name of a false god. It is unrealistic to expect translators to get everything in a translation 100% correct in the first version. Instead, there needs to be a means of rapidly revising translations that are found to have errors.

This is not always as easy as it sounds. The revision process can be difficult, but compared to the task of getting permission to legally revise a translation, the actual revision process can be downright easy.

Who Gets to Revise It?

Many, if not most, Bible translations are the legal property of some entity. Regardless of whether or not the organization that did the translation formally filed for a copyright, copyright laws in most countries make “all rights reserved” the default for any creative work, even a translation of the Bible or discipleship resources. So if an expatriate Bible translation team learned a language and created a translation of the Bible into it, the translation of the Bible automatically becomes the copyrighted possession of their organization without the need to register the copyright. It attaches to the translation at the point of creation.

Before continuing, we need to note two things about this scenario: First, it assumes the translation team is either translating from the Public Domain original texts (which is highly unlikely) or has permission from the publisher of the source translation (whether in English or the original languages) to create a translation of their work. Second, this is a generalization of what commonly occurs in many translation projects, although each project is different and the determination of who owns the copyright on a translation can be more complicated.16

A revision of a Bible translation is a derivative work of the original. The creation of derivative works is one of the rights that is reserved by copyright law for the legal owner of the content. This means that until they are given permission, the people who speak that language have no legal right to revise the translation, regardless of the fact that it is in their own language and they may be the only speakers of that language. The translation of the Bible in their language may be full of errors that need immediate correction, but they themselves are not legally permitted to revise the translation of the Bible in their own language. In such cases, the translation is often the copyrighted possession of a mission organization, Bible society, or publishing company. Until the organization that owns the rights to it does the revision for them or releases it under a license permitting others to do so, no one else has the legal permission to revise it.

In contexts like these, speakers of the language can do little but wait for the organization to do a revision. Thankfully, revisions of translations are sometimes undertaken. For large languages or for languages where the original translation team is still intact and able to do a revision, the translation may be updated and improved. But for many languages, this simply does not happen. Bible translation organizations do not have the personnel to take on the thousands of new translation projects that are needed, while also revising the translations that have already been published and now need to be updated.

Most translation organizations often only have one or two people who are able to speak the languages into which they have translated the Bible. When these people are no longer able to do a revision, the organization that holds the copyright on that translation no longer has anyone who could even do a revision in that language if they wanted to. In these situations, the translation of the Bible is the legal property of an organization that cannot maintain it through time. Gradually, its effectiveness in the language—which continues to change over time—decreases, to the point that it is effectively useless. The speakers of the language, who may already be willing and able to complete a revision, are legally prevented, in these situations, from revising the translation of God’s Word in their own language.

A Step in the Right Direction

Bible translations that were completed after the rise of computers are often available in digital formats, making them much easier to publish, convert into formats that are useful on mobile phones, and revise as needed. But many translations of the Bible in hundreds of languages all over the world only exist in the “paper” world—printed text on paper. These translations are more likely to need revision than newer translations, because of the greater amount of time that has passed since they were published and the subsequently increased likelihood that the language into which the translation was made has changed during that time. But because these translations do not exist in digital formats, revising these translations is much more time-consuming and labor intensive. The texts first need to be scanned and converted to digital formats before they can be revised.

Some of the organizations that own the rights to these texts have begun the process of digitizing the texts. This lays the foundation for the process of revising the translations to correct mistakes and update the language to reflect the way it is spoken today. But if this process is to be completed and the effectiveness of these translations of the Bible is to be maintained, merely digitizing the texts and making them available online and in formats optimized for use on mobile phones is not enough.

In order to make these translations effective now and into the future, the texts themselves must be released under a license that permits the speakers of these languages to legally join in the task of revising the translations. Once the translations are released under an open license, Bible translation organizations, churches, and believers in these languages will be legally able to openly collaborate in the revision process. The openly collaborative model is a sustainable and efficient approach for achieving and maintaining the optimal quality of Bible translations in thousands of languages over time.

“Who’s Going to Sue Us?”

Copyright restrictions on translations of the Bible and other discipleship resources create significant obstacles and hindrances to the spiritual growth of the global church. Ministries encounter the obstacles as they attempt to get legal permission to use copyright-restricted discipleship resources. Believers in the languages run into the same obstacles when they seek to use, build upon, and redistribute discipleship resources in their own language for the spiritual growth of believers in their own people group. All over the world, the absence of a core of legally unrestricted discipleship resources in every language hinders the advance of the Kingdom of God.

When faced with these obstacles, the temptation can be to ignore the legal restrictions and use the discipleship resources as needed, regardless of violating the copyright of another entity. In some parts of the world, it is standard practice to illegally copy and redistribute copyright-restricted digital resources, sharing them by email or websites. Entire file-sharing networks are dedicated to the free redistribution of copyright-restricted discipleship resources and Bible software programs that would otherwise cost each user hundreds of dollars.

From the point of view of believers who desperately need discipleship resources in their own language, these practices are understandable. One would be hard-pressed to argue that these kinds of legal hindrances on the spread of Biblical truth are a good thing for the growth of the global church. After all, it costs a person nothing to share with a friend a copy of what they got for free, thus providing access to a discipleship resource that would not otherwise be available to them.

In the case of ministry organizations, the temptation can be great because they may be in a position to violate copyright restrictions and face little chance of legal prosecution for it. In order to move the ministry forward, they may be tempted to ignore the laws that hinder them in order to get more discipleship resources to more people. All too often, “managing the risk” of getting caught and prosecuted replaces doing what is right at any cost. Expedience does not make an action ethical, even if it is supposedly “for the Kingdom.” We serve the Sovereign God who rules over everything—even man-made legal systems. It is imperative, then, that we live uprightly and maintain the highest standards of ethics and integrity, even when it is frustrating and limiting.

There is a way through the legal complexities of life in the digital age, but the way through is not built on a violation of copyright law.


1 Not their actual name.

2 Matt Hartley, “Bus company no friend to PickupPal,” nov 2008, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/technology/article722574.ece

3 Shirky, Cognitive Surplus, 41.

4 Clay Shirky, “Napster, Udacity, and the Academy,” nov 2012, http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2012/11/napster-udacity-and-the-academy/.

5 Cole, Richard G. “Reformation Printers: Unsung Heroes.” Sixteenth Century Journal 15, no. 3 (1984): 328-329. doi:10.2307/2540767.

6 “Terms of Use for Biblica Online Scripture and All Services,” accessed September 21, 2012, http://www.biblica.com/biblica-about-us/terms-of-use/

7 The information in this table is intended for reference only. Use of any copyright-restricted Bible translation should be made in accordance with the terms of the license available from the copyright holder.

8 “Permission to Quote Copyright & Trademark Information,” accessed October 01, 2012, http://www.lockman.org/tlf/copyright.php. Proper citation required.

9 “Permissions,” accessed October 01, 2012, http://www.esv.org/tools/licensing/. Proper citation required, if used for commentary or reference work must have written permission. Use of text in audio subject to more restrictive terms.

10 Holman Christian Standard Bible (Holman Bible Publishers, n.d.). Proper citation required.

11 “Permission to Quote Copyright & Trademark Information.”. Proper citation required.

12 “Trademark and Copyright Information,” mar 2010, http://bible.org/copyright. Can give away print versions (non-commercial), no non-print distribution without written permission. Non-Commercial Publication: verses (not Notes) can be quoted in any form without permission provided proper attribution. Restriction on number of verses has apparently been withdrawn but is unspecified in the license statement.

13 “Terms of Use for Biblica Online Scripture and All Services.”. Proper citation required, must not be sold, not altered, online version for personal use only, commentaries/commercial/reference books using NIV must obtain permission.

14 David Milling, “How do I get permission to quote from one of your Bible translations (NKJV, NCV, ICB, The Voice, The Expanded Bible)?,” jan 2012, http://help.thomasnelson.com/index.php?/Knowledgebase/Article/View/40/8/how-do-i-get-permission-to-quote-from-one-of-your-bible-translations-nkjv-ncv-icb-the-voice-the-expanded-bible. No modification, proper citation required.

15 There have been a number of attempts recently to create a version of the Bible that is released under an open license. To date, none of these attempts provide the complete Bible, in second-language-speaker-friendly English, with a reputable “chain of title” and translation team behind it. While some translations are said to be “open”, the fact that the licenses under which they are released contain restrictions renders their alleged openness an illusion. As we will see in chapter 9, either a license is “open” (no restrictions or need for permission) or it is not.

16 For instance, if a translation team worked together with native speakers of the language to create the translation, the work may have been done in such a way that the ex-patriate translation team’s organization jointly owns the copyright of the translation with the members of the team who are native speakers of the language. In such cases, the native speakers of the language may not even know that they (or their heirs) are equal owners of the translation, with certain rights and privileges due them. One of their rights, in such cases, includes equal financial compensation for any sales of the finished translation. Such is the nature of copyright law.