Releasing God's Word: Do Copyrights Help or Hurt Bible Translation?

In the late 1800s, a team of British and American translators updated the King James Version (KJV). The resulting Revised Version was originally copyrighted just in England, and within years, unauthorized translations with slight changes cropped up in the United States.

In 1901, that Bible—the Revised Version, Standard American Edition (now known as the American Standard Version)—was copyrighted and printed by Thomas Nelson & Sons. It was the first Bible translation to be copyrighted in the United States.

Now, it is also the version that Wycliffe Associates (WA) is using to “lock open” a copyright-free version of the Bible for global translation.

“The bulk of the church around the world cannot access the resources they need to legally translate for themselves,” explained Tim Jore, WA’s director of translation services. “Copyright law worldwide reserves the right of translation for the owner of the content. This means the global church is in a dilemma unless each one of them is given a custom contract from the owner of the Bible translation they want to use.”

In order for local churches in minority languages to translate from a major-language Bible, they have to first get permission from and perhaps pay the publisher that copyrighted the version they want to use. This spring, the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association shut down an Australian website that was offering more than 50 free Bible translations.

“Copyright issues are one of the greatest remaining challenges we have,” said Greg Pruett, president of Pioneer Bible Translators (PBT). Many of the minority languages are related to nearby major languages, which leads to questions of whether minority ...

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