Copyrighting the Holy Spirit's words, then living off the profit...

But when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market place before the authorities... (Acts 16:19)

(Tim, w/thanks to Lucas) A Greek Bible web site used by lovers of God's Word around the world has been shut down by the German/United Bible Society. Why?

Because they are intent upon defending the stream of money they've lived off for many years, now, provided by the Greek text of God's Word they've assembled. They claim their text is the closest anyone can possibly get to the original autographs inspired by the Holy Spirit.

So think about this. The better they do their job, the closer they will be to claiming copyright for the very word of God. In an e-mail, my son-in-law, Lucas, put it this way:

I was trying to figure out what, exactly, the UBS was copyrighting when they produce their version of the Greek New Testament. My only guess is that when they produce a Greek New Testament, they are copyrighting their specific choice of words. In other words, their copyright is not so much on the words themselves, but on the precise sequence of Greek words in their version of the Greek New Testament.

Their ultimate goal, of course, is to produce a Greek New Testament that is *exactly* the same as the original. But here's the crazy part: If they succeed in their goal, they will have succeeded in copyrighting the *actual* text of the Greek New Testament--not a translation, but the real thing.

Is that not crazy? If I'm right, then you can state it another way: the goal of the UBS is to copyright the *original* text of Scripture.

The head spins...

So what's the story behind this? relied on a project called MorphGNT to supply the data for it's very useful Greek New Testament application. The creator of MorphGNT, James Tauber, spoke at the 2008 BibleTech conference a year ago, and he described it as a "linguistic database focusing on morphological analysis of the text of the Greek New Testament, and, more specifically, the United Bible Society's third edition corrected text." (You can find the complete audio for his talk, along with one specifically about the history of, at the bottom of this page.)

MorphGNT was released under the creative commons license, so it was intended to be freely available to anyone who might benefit from it.

Then, along came the German/United Bible Society waving copyright.

The team responsible for maintaining the MorphGNT project was recently notified that the German Bible Society doesn't license the NA27 or the UBS4 Bible text for open source projects "as a matter of principle". Consequently, they requested that the MorphGNT be removed. The MorphGNT team notified Zack Hubert and the rest is history.

But in their effort to protect their ability to "generate revenue from the sale of the texts in order to support their important work," the German Bible Society has not only put the kibosh on Literally dozens of applications rely on MorphGNT, and every application that does will be affected by this decision.

Did the Holy Spirit inspire the Word of God so the German Bible Society or Rupert Murdock's shareholders who own Zondervan and the exclusive copyright license to the NIV can "generate revenue?"

Their lifetime of riches threatened, the German/United Bible Society has taken their ball and gone home while issuing statements about their important principles and work. But all we need to know is that online resources that have been an enormous boon to the Body of Christ have been removed in order to protect one organization's ability to make money--loads and loads of it.

It's as if anyone connected with the lucrative Bible publisher corporate world today can do anything they want--absolutely anything at all--citing the Biblical command not to muzzle the ox, and everyone packs their discernment in the suitcase, zips it up, snaps to attention, and says, "Yes sir! You're right, sir! Whatever you say, sir!"

One reason for the cowed silence within the church is the serious conflict of interest scholars face in the matter, and scribes today are respected by the people of God as they were in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. We love God's Word, and therefore the men that teach it to us. But we can't depend on these scholars to defend the church in its use of God's Word from the companies that they have been paid by, personally.

Famous Christian celebrities and professors in evangelical colleges and seminaries were remunerated handsomely by these Bible societies and publishers for the use of their names and work on these Bible texts; they were wined and dined, flown here and there, provided digs in fancy hotels around the world; and if they do say so themselves, the rarefied atmosphere seemed to suit them well.

It was a long, long way from the dairy farm they grew up on or the small Midwestern commuter suburb where they now teach New Testament survey to freshmen.

Beyond their work on the Bibles themselves, it's these same corporations that pay the advances and royalties on the books these men write. That's the origin of the serious money these Christian leaders' fame, fortune, and kingdoms are built on. Next to it, the salaries of these celebrities and profs are piddling.

Consider where criticism and investigative journalism are normally published outside the church, then note that publications such as Christianity Today and World live off advertising revenue provided by colleges, seminaries, and publishers (especially).

The men who edit and publish these magazines will be quick to respond that they have a lock down firewall between their advertising and editorial departments. But evangelicalism is a ghetto and Wheaton is a very small town.

For instance, the CEOs of Tyndale House Publishers (publisher of the New Living Translation), Crossway Books (publisher of the English Standard Version), and Christianity Today all are members of my wife's and my home home church in Wheaton.# The same congregation also includes many employees of those three corporations as well as any number of other evangelical businesses and missions. And of course, a number of the scholars paid to produce these Bibles.

In such a close-knit community, it's very hard for good criticism to be done, and accountability is almost impossible. This is why Dad opposed Christianity Today moving to Wheaton thirty or so years ago.

Discernment, criticism, and public accountability are normally hated by the church, but put them in these environs and they become almost impossible. To speak about firewalls between editorial and advertising when everyone's crammed together in the same sanctuary listening to the same sermon week after week is less than reassuring.

So again, who is left to hold these men accountable for the way they use the Bible? For the profits they make? Who will shame them when they refuse to license their text to the only affordable Bible software program that runs on the Mac? Will the scholars who produced and work on the German Bible Society's critical text call these men to account for shutting down the most helpful Greek project in the world today?

How have we arrived at the point that courts adjudicate such matters, rather than the Bride of Christ? Has the Church nothing to say about these things? That something is legal does not make it right or godly.

Back in the day, my brother and I went in print in World with the proposal that Bibles be copyright-free except for the purpose of protecting the integrity of the text.

People in the pew didn't understand what David and I were proposing or why it was important, and I believe a number of the rich men and their scholar-employees thought we were joking.

But tell us, please: how did the Bible survive the first nineteen-hundred years before there were non-profits and for-profits living off Bible copyrights and aggressively defending their huge wealth provided by those copyrights?

For starters, there were patrons, but that's another post for another time.

Fifteen years ago, I appealed to Zondervan to allow the Online Bible for the Mac to license the text of the NIV for their software. Zondervan was adamant in their refusal, though, and the good folks of Online Bible were forced to go over to the UK and license the British text of the NIV, instead. Why?

Because Zondervan had started up its Mac Bible software division by making the terrible mistake of trying to sell software that was so bad, they couldn't give it away. Bloated code brought over from the PC world had corrupted what formerly had been a superb bit of software I owned and used called MacBible. But being clueless about the Mac, Zondervan dove in and, the code ruined, the product was stone-cold dead.

Thus they would not allow the program-of-choice in the Mac world to license the text of the NIV.

It didn't help Online Bible's case that the cost of their software competing with Zondervan's own MacBible was not money, but the explicit statement in the ReadMe file accompanying the program that every user was required to give copies of the program--not the Bible texts, mind you, but the program--to five friends in the first month of use. The publishers of the Bible texts were paid royalties for the use of their own Bibles but the code driving those Bibles was free.

In other words, whereas Zondervan charged for their software, the good folks of Online Bible refused to do so. So you'll understand my saying that this did not endear the good folks of Online Bible to Zondervan. Zondervan had an investment to protect and Mac users around the world were up a creek without a paddle. If your Bible of choice was an NIV and you used a Mac, too bad.

Hearing about the situation from Online Bible's development team and knowing some of the executives at Zondervan, I tried to mediate the conflict. The correspondence was eye-opening. In my judgment, it was all about money and not a bit about serving the church. So, again...

As David and I have said many times (including personally to those who make a living off copyrights they hold on English language Bibles), no one and no corporation and no non-profit organization should ever be allowed to hold a copyright on any text of Scripture for anything other than assuring the integrity of the text they worked to produce.

This is not to say that U.S. and international copyright law won't sustain the aggressive defense of such assets, but that such aggressive defenses are counter to the very Authorship of the Word of God which is the Holy Spirit. Certainly there are substantial creative contributions by translators which are sufficient to guarantee a favorable verdict in any civil suit scholars or their agents and publishing companies would file. No argument there.

But open the financial books so we can all see the full dimensions of the wealth these Bibles have provided evangelical publishers and their proprietary foundations and Bible societies. Then we'll be yanked back to the reality we all should have learned with Roe v. Wade--that to say something is legal is not to say it is right.

It is not right for Bible societies or corporations or scholar-businessmen to refuse to allow the use of a particular translation of Holy Scripture simply in order to protect their cash cow. Whether the version of Scripture providing wealth is the ESV or the NLT or the NIV or the NASB95 or Nestle-Aland's critical text, it is inexcusable for copyrights of Bibles to be used to provide an ongoing stream of wealth for these men over the course of the next seventy years or so.# Remember, the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit and it belongs to the Church.

Likely in every single case we are looking at, long, long ago, these men recouped their initial investments--not their advertising budgets, mind you--and now it's the gravy train.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake in Bible publishing today.

To be clear: We have no objection to a Bible publisher or society using copyright as a defense against someone publishing a portion of Scripture and naming it, say, the "NIV", while altering the text so it's not actually the text of the NIV. People should be able to read a particular translation and know the words they're reading are an accurate reproduction of that translation.

But no one should use copyright to protect the wealth of men, their coporations, or their non-profits when it's the Word of God inspired by the Holy Spirit now two thousand years or more old that's the source of that wealth. And the fact that we've all become inured to this recent development in Bible publishing makes it no less shameful.

It's entirely proper for publishing companies to recoup the investment they've made hiring scholars to work on this or that version (although it seems better for a patron to fund them for a whole host of reasons). But then, let those publishing companies announce how much they invested in the scholars; let them announce it beforehand, so we all know how soon it will be paid back when the version's first printing comes out; so we all know how long before that version will become royalty-free.

This is not hard to understand.

Congregations know and vote on how much their pastors are paid. In the same way, it's time for all those whose wealth comes from Bible copyrights also to have their income provided by the Word of God open knowledge within the church. Bible societies and publishers must be accountable, financially, to the church.

Until they are, they will continue to shut down godly, humble, and poor servants like those who wrote and ran the MorphGNT and ReGreek projects.

* * *

# It should be noted that some Bible publishers have a much better track record of humility and generosity with their Bible copyrights than others. In the author's judgment, Crossway and Tyndale House are particularly commendable in this regard. In the interest of full disclosure, though, the author is related by consanguinity, marriage, and affection to the owners of these corporations and has received money, directly or indirectly, from these coporations or their owners.


Hi Tim,
Thanks for your thoughtful commentary regarding this current copyright crisis. What do you think of the feasibility regarding some kind of petition or other grass-roots movement to get the attention of content owners? I thought about mentioning a "boycott" but that doesn't really work when we're talking about God's word, right?

Weston Ruter

Oh, I'd also like to add to your list of Bible publishers having a track record of humility and generosity with their Bible copyrights: and their NET Bible translation. They've had the policy of "Ministry First" and making their text freely available. Now they are looking at releasing the NET Bible under an open license and they are working with

And if you have any doubts about how much of a cash cow the Bible industry is in these United States, please take a look that this article:

Here's a quote from the article: "Calculating how many Bibles are sold in the United States is a virtually impossible task, but a conservative estimate is that in 2005 Americans purchased some twenty-five million Bibles—twice as many as the most recent Harry Potter book. The amount spent annually on Bibles has been put at more than half a billion dollars."

One correction: there has been no communication between the German Bible Society and the MorphGNT team and it was not the MorphGNT team that notified Zack Hubert he needed to take down his site.

Weston Ruter kindly forwarded me the communication so I am aware that the GBS has issues with the way in which the UBS text can be reconstructed from the MorphGNT analysis. It is not clear to me the GBS has issues with the MorphGNT analysis itself or just the way in which sequential texts can be created from it.

The UPenn CCAT, from where MorphGNT originates, had an issue many years ago that, to my knowledge, only resulted in the removal of a raw UBS3 text they were distributing and not the analysis which was the forerunner to MorphGNT.

That said, I'm looking for a way to keep the analysis intact that obscures the fact you can extract the words of the UBS, in order, from it.

James Tauber, MorphGNT

The money they make via selling the UBS/NA text goes toward spreading God's word through Bible translation projects, because most people don't donate.

Bible translations in third world countries exist because the UBS/NA text is copyrighted and must be purchased. Your little tirade isn't at all helpful.

So the next time you need to buy a Greek New Testament, think about people groups who don't have the scriptures that you're helping.

Dear Mike,

Are you aware of the relationship between the American Bible Society and the UBS? I suspect not from your note. The ABS was instrumental in founding the UBS. They're close allies in Bible translation work.

So when you suggest "most people don't donate" to Bible translation projects you are evidently unaware of:

1. The size of the ABS budget and endowment.

2. The ranking of Wycliffe/SIL in giving to Evangelical (and even non-evangelical) missions agencies.

3. The amount of money contributed by, for instance, my brother's father-in-law alone to Wycliffe's SEED project.

I doubt, given the tone of your note above, that you're a man who appreciates correction. But in the case, you're so completely wrong on every possible point I'm correcting you for the sake of those who do have ears to hear.


David Bayly

I suspect not from your note....So when you suggest "most people don't donate" to Bible translation projects you are evidently unaware of

You have a gift for making assumptions.

I doubt, given the tone of your note above, that you're a man who appreciates correction. But in the case, you're so completely wrong on every possible point I'm correcting you for the sake of those who do have ears to hear.

One could say the same about you. I only responded in kind.

I'd like to hear someone tell the story of how the NIV became so profitable. It is one of many competing translations of the Bible into English, and it is not especially good. I haven't heard anyone claim it is well written, though perhaps I just haven't heard. It is in simple English, to be sure, but that's easy enough to do, especially if you're allowed to paraphrase, which it does. (I know it says it doesn't, but doesn't it do it but substitute some use phrase like "dynamic equivalency" for "paraphrase"?) So why doesn't some other for-profit publisher do its own translation and undercut the NIV's price?

I think that the answer is tied up with Protestant pastors encouraging use of the NIV, but I don't know why they do that, since most of them aren't getting any financial reward for doing so.

In fact, why doesn't some denomination do its own translation, make its congregations buy that one, and keep the profits? That would give it money, a better translation, and glory for the professors at its seminaries who do the translation. From every point of view-- advancing the kingdom or advancing self-- the plan would be good.

Dear Eric,

My sense is that the NIV's popularity is in part due to the particular niche it has filled: that is, it is the preferred translation for those who want to read a translation more clearly devoted to communicating the underlying meaning of the text than to preserving the formal structure in which that meaning is found. To the extent that it does not bring the translator's interpretation to the text, it remains a "dynamic-equivalence" translation and not a paraphrase. To be sure, the line between translating the meaning of the text and inserting one's own interpretation of it is a fine one, and the NIV does cross it on occasion. But it retains its value insofar as it holds a position between, for example, the Living Bible (which certainly is a paraphrase) and the ESV (which at times must veer into dynamic-equivalence land).

I, too, would like to see translation returned to the agency and authority of the Church, but carrying out the process explicitly under a denomination's authority brings an additional problem. Namely, a translation thus produced would have little claim to objectivity and would be susceptible to charges of sectarian bias that would, I think, cripple its success.

Indeed, of making many books there is no end...and unfortunately this has come to pertain even to Bible translations.



"I, too, would like to see translation returned to the agency and authority of the Church, but carrying out the process explicitly under a denomination's authority brings an additional problem."

Josh, this is the direction in which SIL/Wycliffe is headed in their translation work. More and more minority language translations are being done with the local church being the guiding force. I hope that's an encouragement to you.

David Bayly: I'm sorry that I'm coming back comment again, but...

1) You did a really good job getting under my skin.
2) I decided that my initial response was cold and not becoming.

So first of all, I would like to apologize for the coldness of my response to your words. That was far from necessary.

But secondly, you need to know that your words to me were down right cruel.

It it utterly cruel to read a few sentences of what someone says and then question that persons character when you don't even know them. But that is exactly what you did when you wrote, "I doubt, given the tone of your note above, that you're a man who appreciates correction."

Perhaps I am wrong in what I said. My experience says that I'm not (I'm affiliated with SIL), but either way, your response was completely unnecessary.

If you're a pastor. Act like it. Speak like it. Those words, YOUR words, are in no way, becoming of a pastor. Real pastors don't pontificate about the character of complete strangers based on four sentence blog comments.

Dear Mike,

Thanks for your further note. We disagree on the calling of the pastor and the words he should use in effecting his calling. It seems clear to me that a pastor should challenge a young man when he speaks disrespectfully toward an elder in the faith--especially when his lack of respect is exacerbated by false factual claims. But, then, I'm also encouraged by the fact that I got under your skin. That's often the job of a pastor.

In Christ,

David Bayly

As one who is involved (in a limited role) in the digitization of biblical texts, I believe that patience and understanding are warranted by outsiders.

Misperceptions seem to abound, and the current post seems to tap into populist outrage that is rather en vogue today.

Though the portrait of fat-cats lavishly wasting money was envisioned in this post, I do not see any greater excess in the conferences and meetings of translation/digitization workers and executives than I see at evangelical pastoral conferences. The money attained is neither hoarded nor wasted, to my knowledge.

I hope this is received well.


That's precisely what David and I are not, but to prove it would be distasteful.


As opposed to the cognoscenti? The guild? Really, I hope you aren't using this word as it's normally employed. You know, like the populist outrage against integration fomented and exploited by George Wallace.


No, rebuke. But then, it's hard for modernists to understand the concept of rebuke.

As for equating the wealth of publishing and Bible society executives, and pastors, can this be serious? Whether or not it is, I'm simply proposing the books be opened so everyone can see. Show the people of God the money and let them judge.

Concerning Zondervan's current profitability, to speak of the corporation is not to speak of the Bible division. Likely, the Bible division made money but was unable to lift the other divisions out of their deep hole. That was the case with Zondervan the year of the gender-neutered Bible battle a decade ago, now. That year, of their six or seven divisions, the Bible division was the only one that made money.

Most of Zondervan's executives were let go, recently, so this is not the norm. Meanwhile, has anyone noticed what's going on around the world? The IMF bailed out the sovereign nation of Iceland.

The good thing is that, like education, Christian publishing is a relatively inflation-proof business.

On this money matter, please do as Lucas requested above and read the "New Yorker" piece he provided a link to. Or simply note the quote he pulled: that Bible sales pull in about half a billion dollars each year.

It would be instructive to all of us to think about what the moneychangers in the Temple went home and said to their families at the dinner table. Did they speak of the legitimate need for their services? Of their dislike for the Galilean's fomenting of populist outrage? Did they point out to their wives and children how modest their family's lifestyle was compared to those of Herod and the members of the Sanhedrin?

* * *

One last thing: as I've thought about this more, I'm beginning to wonder if I was right in saying a court battle over the copyright of the Greek critical text would be winnable? Maybe the apparatus under the line, but the text? I wonder. If you're interested in my reason for questioning this, here's a post that will explain it:

Think about it. Every single manuscript or fragment the critical text quoted in the text is in the public domain. So, the only thing able to assert copyright over is the particular choices made in stitching those fragments and manuscripts together. As Lucas pointed out, the order of the words. Sort of.

Some godly patron should give a godly attorney the money to take it to court.

As I've often said, those who do the work are worthy of their hire. The way they are paid, though, is an entirely different matter.

Using U.S. and international copyright law to demand control over a book the Holy Spirit Himself inspired and gave to the Church is wrong. And to talk about all the honorable things done by the well-paid executives of this or that Bible society with some of their endowment or cash flow is to beg the question.

It's also to overlook the fact that the vast majority of the work of translation done around the world is not funded by these Bible societies, but by the selfless giving of the people of God through their church's missions budget. Or, as in my father-in-law's case, on their very own.