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Real examples of how copyright is hindering ministry

These stories represent just a small fraction of the problems many believers face all around the world in trying to get access to Christian resources.

Printed Bibles

The following stories have been compiled by Tim Jore:

“A Bible society in Southeast Asia does not consider there to be any financial value in printing more copies of the Bible in certain languages, so they do not, even though the Church is pleading for more.”

“A Bible society in Africa is deliberately starving the Bible market to keep prices artificially high. So the Church pleads for the Bible but cannot afford it, while the warehouses of the institution are filled with the Bibles the Church needs.”

“A Central Asian Bible society has a warehouse full of a brand new Bible translation that they own. This translation is urgently needed by millions of speakers of that language, but the institution will not make it available, due to the style of the translation and the word choices used. The only way the Church can gain access to them is by the compassion of an unbelieving employee of the publisher who smuggles the Bibles out of the warehouse.”

“An almost completely illiterate people group in Africa has a translation of the New Testament, but a Bible society owns the copyright on the translation and refuses to allow the recording of audio Bibles for free, widespread sharing of the MP3s for the building up of the Church.”

“For more than 10 years a Bible society in Africa that owns the rights to a Bible has refused to print more copies. They cannot afford the print run and, even if they could, the Church would not be able to purchase all the copies. Instead of making the Bible available for lower-cost printing options (like print-on-demand), the Bible is simply not made available at all.”

“In Central Asia, a Bible society refuses to print any Bible that does not have traditional Christian artwork placed prominently on the cover. Even though such artwork places the Church in religiously antagonistic contexts at lethal risk, the institution owns the copyright and insists on their tradition, regardless of the danger to the Church.”

“For many years, a people group in Africa has had a huge demand for a second print run of the translation of the Bible in their language. The Bible society that owns the Bible in that language has not been able to pay for the minimum run but they have not permitted the use of lower-cost options like print-on-demand. Churches are now, once again, reading in the national language and doing on-the-fly oral translations, just as though the Bible had never been translated in the first place.”

Digital Bibles

Most popular translations of the Bible are forbidden from being used in apps without permission, and usually only registered organizations are able to request or be granted access. However, most free open source apps are created by volunteers rather than organizations. As such, they are locked out from most popular Bible translations.

The ESV bible translation used to be included in a Bible platform that allowed many different free and open source bible apps to include it for their users. The owner of the ESV (Crossway) later had a change of heart and pulled the translation from the platform.

As a result, many of these free apps get negative feedback from users even though there is nothing they can do about it. Like this 2/5 stars review for AndBible: Poor review due to the fact that ESV version is no longer available.

Abandoned resources

If a publisher no longer considers it profitable to keep printing a book they simply stop printing and yet still retain the rights to it. Rather than make works free to copy they simply let them die, making them no longer available and forbidding anyone else from reprinting them. This also happens when authors pass away, leaving the rights to their works to any descendants who may or may not continue publishing them.

The International Standard Version

Reportedly used by millions of people worldwide at one point, the International Standard Version is an English Bible translation that would have taken years of diligent work to produce. Yet after the former executive director of its foundation passed away in 2019, the ISV website has gone down, the ISV foundation has not filed any tax returns, and the website of the stated publisher of the ISV has been infected with malware advertising gambling (as of May 2023).

It is unknown who now owns the rights to the ISV translation, and it can no longer be downloaded from the website. Had the owners freed it from copyright, the Christian community could have continued to publish and use it in ministry resources. Unless the new rights owners emerge and continue publishing it, an entire modern English Bible will progressively go to waste.

The Hebrew dictionary no longer in print

The Diccionario bíblico hebreo-español is a Hebrew-Spanish dictionary that is out of print, and the publisher does not respond when contacted. Many spanish believers would love to study biblical Hebrew using such a resource, but are unable to because the publisher retains the rights to the now out-of-print book.

Bible illustrations in storage

There are many bible illustrations that publishers hold the rights to even though they are no longer using them. Rather than release them for the benefit of the church, they keep them in storage instead.

Worship music

While many songs tell of giving everything to Jesus in various wording, almost all modern songs are not freely given to Jesus and his church, but are illegal to sing in public without a license.

Some artists tell of how encouraged they are that their songs are being sung by believers all around the world, even by persecuted Christians. But what they don't realise is that by maintaining copyright of their songs they are making all those believers lawbreakers. Copyright is not widely understood or enforced outside Western countries, and many believers are unintentionally breaking the law by using copyrighted Christian resources.

"In South-East Asia, young people especially love singing Western songs, even if missionaries try to encourage them to sing in local styles. So they'll translate the lyrics and sing them in churches, almost certainly without permission, without a license, and without paying any royalties. In other words, they do it illegally. Not out of bad motives, but because they don't understand copyright or even realise that they are breaking the law. Many of these churches face persecution, and are already considered "illegal" in that sense."

— Missionary in South-East Asia

Asking permission

It's often argued that anyone wanting to use a resource should simply ask permission. There are many problems with that, both in principle and in practice.

Gracious Tech has contacted many different Christian organizations, requesting permission for many different types of resources, and this was their experience:

"We've requested permission for all kinds of resources, including Bible translations, Bible data, images, articles, etc. Our use case is always non-commercial. Most of the time people simply don't reply. Sometimes they do if we send a followup email, but there's usually a long wait either way. For those that do reply, there'll be a long back-and-forth where we explain what we're trying to do, they raise some things, and there's often a long delay between each correspondence.

There was one time we couldn't even contact a Bible translation owner because they didn't publish any means of contact, and their website's contact form was broken, so we gave up.

In sum, we usually expect to either not receive any reply or to be denied access to resources. To be granted access to something is definitely the less common outcome in our experience."

Less resourced countries

The Digital Bible Society was founded in response to the issue of copyright and the lack of resources for places like China:

Ken, a Bible enthusiast and self-taught computer programmer agreed to meet with Jon [a Chinese missionary]. He introduced him to commercial Bible software of the time: PC Study Bible and Logos. Jon, seeing the abundance of resources began weeping. He then asked Ken to give him copies of these programs for distribution across China. Ken said, “No, that’s illegal. It’s against copyright law.”

Jon questioned this line of reasoning by asking, “What do you care about American copyright law when we are going to jail for distributing Bibles?”

Ken told him it was a matter of conscience and asked, “Why would you even want Bibles and books in English? Would it not be better to distribute in Chinese?”

“Of course, it would.” Jon said, “But, English is better than nothing and that is what we have in China, nothing!”