Who owns your Bible?

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Or, to put the question in the heading more specifically, who should have access to God's Word, and who has the right to prevent someone from using God's Word?

If you are an heir to Protestant values like I am, your instinctive answers to the above two questions are probably “everyone” and “no-one” respectively. Unfortunately, the answer is not so straightforward.

And, again unfortunately, this is not a theoretical question.

But let's back up a minute and explain why this matters to me, and why it should to you, both right now and as a general principle.

The background

I run a Bible memorisation website – learnscripture.net. It provides a cutting edge system for scheduling, learning and reviewing Bible verses for memorisation. It's been running since 2012, and now has about 12,000 signed up users.

The service is entirely free, and also free of ads or any other means of making money, because none of these would help with its purposes, and my aim is a site that excels at helping you memorise God's Word. The modest running costs are paid either out of my pocket or from donations – although the real cost is my time, which I give for free, and happily so.

A range of Bible versions are available, one of which is the ESV – a very popular version, and with good reason. For most of the Bible versions I have, in fact all the others, there is a complete copy of the Bible text in my database. But for the ESV the only legal access I've been able to get to use this version is via their “API” – an online service that my website connects to retrieve verses of the ESV as they are needed. There are quite a few restrictions on this API, such as not being able to cache more than 500 verses in my database etc.

On their website and in various other places, Crossway claims (emphasis added):

Suited for personal reading, public worship, in-depth study, and Scripture memorization, the ESV is available in hundreds of print editions on Crossway.org and free digitally via mobile apps or online through ESV.org.

For a text to be appropriate for memorisation, it's clear that continued access to the text is a basic requirement. But for many of the users of learnscripture.net, the text that they were memorising will soon no longer be accessible: the v2 API will be closed in April and I will have to move to the v3 API, and along with it the text will change from the 2007 edition to the 2016 edition.

(I knew for a while that the former was deprecated, but the dedicated web page for the v2 API has never given a date it would be stopped, and I was notified less than a month ago of this termination, which isn't a huge amount of time).

As well as the API, there are other options for licencing the text if you have some money, but from my exchanges with them so far it seems that under no circumstances will they permit use of the older versions of the ESV text.

Now, I do not object to updates to the text – I don't believe any translation is perfect, and it's absolutely right that we continue to strive to produce better translations, as both our understanding of the original improves and English itself evolves. But continued access to old editions of the text is essential if the Crossway wishes to claim that this version is suitable for memorisation — and, in the digital age, “access” means “digital access”.

So to me, as I try to remove every hindrance as my users attempt to memorise God's Word, this is extremely disappointing, and also very worrying as a matter of principle. How is it that some people have the right to hinder others in their memorising of the Bible?

Objection 1 – it's just one translation

You might respond by saying that they are not blocking access to God's Word, just their own translation of God's Word. People can still access the Bible: they can use the original languages; they can use another translation; or they could make their own. What right do I have to demand access?

I think these responses fail on a number of levels:

  • As Christians we believe that any sufficiently accurate translation of God's Word can itself rightly be called “God's Word” or “the Bible”. We don't have the Muslim view of the Qu'ran that says that only the original Arabic is the Qu'ran.

  • Many of the other popular translations are at least as restrictive as the ESV is in terms of the things that you are freely allowed to do with them. The NIV, for instance, managed by Biblica, is even harder to get permission to use for my kind of service.

  • The overwhelming majority of people can't use the original languages well enough to be able to use them for Bible reading.

  • As a Christian community we really don't want loads of people coming up with their own translations! We've already recognised that this is a really bad thing, because most people who want to write their own translations are not qualified, and they come up with very poor attempts that unfortunately get more support than they should.

    (Please note the restraint I used in not mentioning them by name! But I have disappointed some of my users in not even attempting to add some “translations”).

  • As individuals and churches, we are slow to change our preferred Bible translations, and that's a good thing. We want church Bibles that everyone has access to in the pew and at home. If we do switch translations, it will be on the basis of which translation we think is the very best, most accurate or helpful translation. Perhaps naively, we don't think about continued access to the text when we make these decisions.

For these reasons, I think it is perfectly reasonable to frame this debate as being about “the freedom to use God's Word”, rather than “the freedom to use one particular translation of God's Word.”

With that in place, when it comes to the question of “rights”, the correct question must surely be this:

What right do Bible translators have to restrict access to a Bible text, especially after they have encouraged the use of that text by the general Christian population for a wide range of purposes? Their legal right is clear (copyright law), but hopefully I don't have to explain that legal rights and moral rights can be very different.

So the question is, on what moral basis can you restrict access to God's Word?

And following on from this, who is able to override the decisions of the ESV copyright holders? Is it appropriate, as the Christian community, that we hand over this decision to a non-accountable para-church organisation who can choose whatever terms they like?

If you attempt to talk licensing with Crossway, you'll find a process that is completely opaque and in which you have no right to appeal or complain. Is this as it should be?

If you want to memorise part of Shakespeare's works, or even an ancient Christian creed or a less ancient confession (which you can also memorise on learnscripture.net), you will have greater freedom in how you choose to do that than if you want to memorise the Bible. Am I the only one who thinks this is a disgrace?

Objection 2 – a labourer is worthy of his wages

This is an important Biblical principle, and I think some people might assume it means that it gives copyright holders moral permission to do what they like.

It's true that copyright law has often provided a way for people to make a living from their work, which might have been difficult any other way. But it really doesn't follow that this particular method of getting a wage for your labours is either Biblically justified or the best way of handling God's Word.

In practice, basing remuneration for work on copyrights is a rather indirect and often an extremely ineffective way of fulfilling "the labourer is worthy of his wages".

Take authors of Christian books, for example. It's pretty safe to say that the large majority of these authors will not have come close to being paid a living wage for hours spent on books they have written. There are big exceptions of course – the most popular authors will do much better, but they are few in number. The fact is that the publishing industry is built to make profits for the publishing industry, and not for book authors.

On several occasions I've been approached by publishers and asked to write a book (about software, not theology, I should add), and one of them had the honesty to admit to me that writing a book is a "labour of love" that is done for the community! Of course I don't object to helping the software community, and in fact have done so for free in many ways, but I can do it without the help of publishers, and with far greater freedoms.

In reality, as a Christian community we don't actually expect Christian authors to make a living from book sales, and in fact usually sponsor their writing work in other ways, like paying a pastor's salary. In this context, a publishing model that involves signing over complete distribution rights to other people, when we have paid for the work, and we could distribute ourselves pretty much for free via the internet, is pretty ridiculous.

What I'm saying is that the principle of paying people for their work doesn't mean that any method of doing so is sensible or appropriate, especially when it comes to the Bible and the needs of the kingdom.

Objection 3 – not many verses are affected

The changes made in the 2011 and 2016 updates affect 291 verses, at my count. Some people think this isn't worth bothering about. Certainly the person I emailed regarding ESV licensing thinks so:

…the changes were pretty minor in those two rounds so it is unlikely that it would affect a memorization program in any significant way.

My first response is this: do you get to make the decision about what is “significant”, or should you leave that to people who are doing the memorising?

Second, it should be noted that although it’s a small fraction of the total number of verses in the Bible, it’s a much larger fraction of the kind of verses that people tend to memorise – the changes are concentrated in better known and used verses.

Further, I'd like you to consider the way that word-for-word memorisation works, and learnscripture.net especially.

The system in my website manages the whole schedule of your verse learning, along with tests that adjust the schedule according to the progress you are making, using the tried and tested principle of spaced repetition.

If you do well in your tests, you will see a verse approx 20 times in increasing intervals over about 1 year, until you finally retire a verse for good. Now, suppose you've almost finished learning Philippians 2:14, for example. You are on 97%, and need just one more high scoring test to finish it forever. You are quite sure the text says: “Do all things without grumbling or questioning” (ESV 2007). But the website now insists that last word is in fact “disputing” (ESV 2016). It marks you down, moves your progress backwards, and leaves you wondering if you've lost your sanity, or who you should be angry at.

By default, you would then see the verse again several months later. Of course, the next time, exactly the same thing happens – after 19 reviews, “questioning” is firmly embedded in your mind as the last word. One might argue that God's will in this extremely annoying situation is to perfect you in the grace of patience! One might also argue that when learning that verse in particular, grumbling about it is in fact the last thing you are allowed to do.

But humanly speaking, the most likely outcome is significant demotivation to continue learning God's Word. For those reading this, I hope you are serious about memorising scripture, and so I hope you will understand the issue.

Whether you are or not, some of my users are extremely dedicated to their Bible memorisation. One of our top users recently hit a milestone of having started learning a new verse every single day without a break for 3 years. Many have completed learning hundreds of verses, and are learning hundreds more.

Of the 12,000 signed up users, about 6,000 have chosen the ESV as their preferred version, and over 1,400 are affected by changes in the ESV text due to verses that they have already started learning. For most of these it is just one or two verses, but around 100 of my users have 5+ verses affected, and for some it is 10, 20, 30, 40, 50+ verses that are affected. When it comes to friction when memorising something, this adds up!

Others may not care about these people, but I do, especially as I cannot say that I come close to matching their dedication to learning scripture. I do not feel I have the right to put any hindrance in their way.

In addition, we also have to think to the future. With the way that Crossway licence their text, we have no guarantee that, having had to update to the 2016 version, we won't have to update again, or that we won't be denied the kind of access we need for any other reason. As the Christian community, we hope that Crossway's decisions won't put us in too much difficulty, but we have no guarantees.

It is not ridiculous to worry about this. I'm already suffering difficulties with licensing restrictions, and could give you more examples. For one, I've never been able to get the New King James Version for my site. I had to negotiate with Hodder and Stoughton in the UK, a secular publisher who have the distribution rights, and they said at least £1,000 was required to even draw up the contract I would need, let alone ongoing fees. NIV is another translation I'd love to add, and have made attempts over several years, but it's not easy. (With some changes to the way learnscripture.net is owned, hopefully bringing it formally under 100fold, I may yet make progress).

Those in the software world recognise this problem as “vendor lock-in”. You have a dependency on a certain organisation for a certain service, and the difficulty of removing that dependency means you are kind of forced to accept whatever terms they give you in the future. It's why people like me prefer “Open Source” software which give you greater freedoms and guarantees. For access to God's Word, which is far more important, surely we should be looking for something similar, or better?

It doesn't have to be this hard

Non-English translations usually give you no problems if you want to use the text, and some English versions are the same. The NASB (New American Standard Bible) gave me no such problems, nor the CSB (Christian Standard Bible). The NET Bible were very helpful, and are a particularly good example – they have thought ahead and given you the freedoms you will need if you depend on their text, no matter what happens to the organisation in the future. They've realised this is an important safeguard for the future.

In many secular business sectors, many people have long figured out that making your business model depend on enforcing copyrights is actually bad for business – see the Open Software world that I already mentioned, for example. Other people have spent the time needed to come up with a range of licences that protect the things you do want to protect while still giving enough freedoms — like the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives licence, for example.

So what I'm suggesting is really not very radical, and shouldn't be this hard. When I started this project in 2012, in my naivety it never occurred to me that the hardest and most draining part of this work would be trying to get permission from some of God's people to allow others among God's people to memorise God's Word without hindrance.

At some points in trying to sort this out, I got the impression that the difficulty of administering these things might be behind some of Crossway's decisions. If that is the case, there are a few things to say:

  • Should there not be some transparency around what the problems are?

  • Shouldn't “permit” be the default, rather than “deny”, with something as important as God's Word?

  • Could there be a radically simpler (and more liberal) method of giving permissions that would reduce the load on Crossway?

What can you do?

My immediate need is nothing more than this: to have permission for my users to continue memorising the ESV verses they have already started learning, with the 2007 text they started with. I'm very happy to ensure that for newer users, only the newer 2016 text will be available, if that is required.

I can use the existing version 2 API to download the ESV 2007 text (before it shuts down), so this costs them literally nothing – the only thing they have to do is say yes.

If you agree this is important, you could drop a note to licensing@crossway.org and politely add your voice to mine. I've only got a few weeks left before I'll have to make the switch otherwise. You could also alert others by social media if you think this is a worthy cause.

The principles are bigger than this immediate need though. What safeguards do we have for the future? As the Christian community, do we need to include these things in how we choose Bible translations in our churches? Can we make sure that the next generation isn't having to face these same problems?

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