Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Copyright and Trademark - When Old Becomes Good

I have a couple of musings on copyright and trademark law and business, and this is the first of them. This one involves my love of scrobbling and a king from long ago. (Interpret that as you will.)

For those who aren't familiar with the term, I am using "scrobbling" in its last.fm context - namely, identifying and recording any piece of audio that I listen to over a properly-equipped computing device. If you go to http://www.last.fm/user/ontarioemperor, you can see an exhaustive (and exhausting) list of everything to which I've listened on such devices over the last several years. (And yes, JC Chasez is in this list. The scrobbler knows all.)

Last Friday morning I had a hankering to find some scrobble-friendly audio of the Bible. In my online search, I was looking for audio that was legally free to download. I ended up at Audiotreasure and downloaded a portion of Exodus 20 and the entire book of John. While I went to this particular site, there are a number of other sites that provide audio versions of the Bible for free.

I'd be willing to bet that the vast majority of English-language audio Bible sites provide only one of the myriad of translations of the Bible - namely, the King James Version.

Why? Because it's free.

I have been known to quote text from the Bible in various posts (maybe not much in this blog, but in other blogs I have written), and when I do so I usually go to BibleGateway.com and I usually quote from the New International Version of the Bible. But when I do, I need to include a copyright notice such as the following:

New International Version (NIV)

Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society

Yes, all of the commonly-used English-language Bible translations that have been produced over the last couple of centuries are copyrighted. While one reason for this is to preserve the integrity of the translation, another reason is to receive income. (Considering the work that went into the translation, that's not an unreasonable request.)

But there's one very popular translation that isn't subject to copyright law, because it was translated a long, long time ago - namely, the King James Version, produced by a team assembled by King James I of England (James VI of Scotland, if I remember my history correctly). Now in most of the world, copyright protection for the King James Bible has long since ceased, which means that you or I could produce a King James Bible and not have to pay anyone for the privilege. Interestingly enough, this translation is still under copyright protection in the land of its birth. Wikisource notes that the copyright is "eternal" (while some readers of the Book of Revelation might dispute that). Wikisource further states;

Thou shalt obtain permissions to publish in England and Wales by following the guidance in A Brief Guide to Liturgical Copyright, third edition (RTF file). If thou wish to publish in Scotland, thou shalt contact the Scottish Bible Board for permissions.

The result of this legal mishmash is that the King James Version of the Bible is still the most popular translation today. While some groups and persons adopt this translation for doctrinal reasons, other groups and persons adopt it for economic ones. If you were to phrase it in tech terms, one could claim that KJV is the de facto interoperability standard. While I might use NIV and you might use ESV, we can often agree to use KJV. (There are exceptions to this, but they're beyond the scope of this post.)

To compete, other translations often enter into special deals to allow their works to be shown on a par with the King James Version. I've already shown you Bible Gateway; I don't know the terms of the agreement between the Bible Gateway folks and the International Bible Soceity, but there's a good chance that some money had to change hands before the NIV could be displayed at the website.

However, barring some major event (which could obviously happen in this instance), no single English-language Bible will ever enjoy the near-universal popularity that was enjoyed by the King James Version for several centuries.

Enough about God - I'm planning to write the next post in this series about another universal power, Google.
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