Why We Need a Free Electronic Bible in English
Robert J. Mondore writes (responding to Cindy Smith's proposal of a new
Modern English translation of the Bible to be distributed as free E-text):
Your proposal to make a new translation is very interesting. I would
not want to dissuade you from such a noble task. However, I wonder
why a copyrighted translation is very bothersome? May I infer from this
that people are being deprived of the Scriptures because of such? I don't
think you mean that. I'm sure most anyone too poor to buy a Bible would
be able to get one free through most any church.
I agree that in many parts of the world English translations are so cheap
and easy to come by that E-text is not a solution to any known problem. If
we see E-text solely as a medium for making otherwise rare works widely
available, then a free Bible is exactly the wrong choice for a new project.
Aside from the obvious (and more or less irrelevant) points that
--English books are not widely available in some parts of the world
--Bibles of any sort are scarce in certain parts of the world that could
be reached electronically (but where Jacobean English is not as well known
as its modern cousin)
the main reasons for desiring such a translation have to do with E-text
uses that a print version cannot duplicate:
1. E-text can exist on the Internet, where many persons who never read
a book can see it, search it with gopher and WWW, and otherwise use it
for discussion and possibly even interactive virtual liturgies. E-text and
print share a common language (for now), but they reach different, partly
2. An E-text can be used as the basis for lexical studies and so forth.
I suspect that if the NRSV did *not* have a copyright and *were* available
as E-text, some scholarly use could be made of it. The point is to provide
a functional equivalent to the NRSV in the electronic domain. We won't
get this on the first pass, but we will found a textual tradition that
in time may lead there.
3. To the argument that existing software is relatively cheap, so that
copyrighted materials are readily available to professionals, I point out
that typical fees in the range 5 to 100 dollars (average about 40) add up
when you consider a whole library of such things. This places the full
range of available texts beyond the reach of many schools, libraries, students
seminarians, ministers, and interested laypersons.**
** An exception is the _Online Bible_, discussed as a separate case below.
All existing E-texts of the complete Bible, in whatever version, proprietary
or not, would fit on a single 600 MB CD, or a most a few. A CD costs
about 3 dollars to manufacture, after a few hundred dollar setup cost, well
within the range of most schools and libraries. There is no technological
reason that every high school library can't own a copy of everything available
in E-text form to biblical scholars. How many more Greek students or Biblical
scholars would there be if they did own it?
4. Free E-texts can be used in (free or proprietary) retrieval systems.
Typing in a copyrighted version for such systems requires (a) a lot of
effort and (b) special permissions, which are likely to show up as restrictions
on distributing a freeware product or, in a proprietary product, as higher
That's right. A PD text encourages the production of more and better
proprietary products. In addition, it standardizes the textual base, so that
even the errors are in common, and the correction to a single source text
can in principle be used to update all the various products in a decentralized
5. Software systems are not the only "derivative works" that can run
afoul of a copyright. Scholarly works making extensive quotations or
free hypertext commentaries on whole books are out of the question. We want
such things to be available in E-text form.
6. Some scholars are not net consumers of software, taking whatever is
available and waiting if what they want is not available; instead they tinker
with sorting and searching, encoding schemes, and so forth. As a certain
stripe of humanist gets access to more E-text, we will see scientific or at
least statistical analyses emerging. Free E-texts relieve them of needless
typing labor and from a self-imposed limitation to small, toy programs.
7. Duplication of research results by different teams or using different
algorithms requires access to common source text, either manuscripts
or identical encodings (like reproducing Monte Carlo analyses by
starting from the same random number seed). One case in which researchers
were unable to duplicate others' results because of a closely held E-text
(and possibly algorithm) was discussed in this forum not so long ago.
With regard to the _Online Bible_, which some say already meets all the
needs above and is free to boot, I comment
1. Every worthwhile project such as the _Online Bible_ starts with a
base text. If the base text is free then there will be more products,
with new interesting features. How many people will start a programming
project that begins "Step 1. Type in the Bible."?
2. The _Online Bible_ base text cannot be extracted in optimal form.
In particular, punctuation, capitalization, and critical apparatus may
be stripped off. In any event the text is unsuitable for such scholarly
uses as cutting and pasting a prooftext into an E-mail message.** Also there
is a stigma associated with using the results of such stripping in further
products, even were they suitable.
** if it can be done, the method is system-dependent. ASCII text can
go anywhere, even from your machine to a friend's of a different make,
accessed over telephone lines from some hotel room.
3. Even those portions of the base text that can be extracted, such
as the Nestle-Aland26 base text, have been removed from FTP circulation because
of copyright violation fears.** There is no reason to believe that if we
extracted the text of the RSV it would be widely circulated.
** These were unfounded; but it is well known that threatening a lawsuit,
even a baseless one, is an effective form of intimidation. In some cases
there does not even have to be an explicit threat. In the case of NA26,
one could argue that the versification and word spacing were not in the
original, so the fears were not *completely* paranoid.
4. Projects such as the _Online Bible_ lag rather than lead print versions;
scholarship should work the other way around: the latest critical versions
should be available for free at FTP sites, to foster distributed collaboration
at a lower cost to funding agencies. As long as we have copyrighted
versions we can't have publically-conducted, open scholarship with low
Robert J. Mondore again:
Also, a copyright protects a version from being changed by this
or that group, perhaps corrupting it (such as the New World Translation).
This argument is simply bogus. When we pick up a book we depend on the
reputation of the publisher and (implicitly) on the capital cost of printing
a book. In E-text, we depend on the reputation of the custodian site.
Anyone interested can download the official text and compare it with the
questionable one. Or they can download a list of checksums for various files.
If integrity is really an issue, public key cryptography can be employed to
acheive a textual integrity undreamed of in print. Open systems are like
democracies. They have security problems, but nothing like the alternative.
A more serious argument is over fragmentation of the text into a bejillion
derivative versions. In the past, humans face with lots of choices have
managed quite well at picking the few that best served their needs. This
is a short term problem, as a comparison of the 10 best print translations
of the Bible into English with the 100s that have been attempted will show.
E-text does not obey Gresham's Law: it gets better as time goes on. E-text
will have more variants because it is technologically possible to handle
more variants, to control and merge them, compare and sift them.
[Copyrighted text] also protects the incentive for publishers to invest
huge sums to promote the Bible (it forbids copycats from pulling the rug
out from under them).
Compared to individual efforts at evangelism, commercial promotion of the
Bible is relatively unimportant for the spread of Christianity. Christianity
did better, as a whole, when Bibles were copied by *hand*. Our aim is
to foster evangelism (presence of the Bible text on the Internet, a version
that can be *used* in certain ways) not simply to spread the text around
Royalties, as I understand it, are not the chief source of funding for
biblical scholarship =per se=. If they are, then the proper response is for
the academic world to find other sources of funding, not try to prop up an
outdated system by restricting the distribution of information or scholarly
results to certain media.** Collecting royalties is not troubling when it
amounts to a few percent of production and distribution costs. Funding your
project with royalties at 100x or 1000x the possible distribution cost is
usury. You might get away with it for a while, but the world will catch
up with you.
** I am including the way a medium is distributed as part of the definition
of a distinct medium. Proprietary retrieval systems and PD ASCII are two
Companies also allow large sections of their version to be quoted before
crying about copyright infringement. For example, the NIV (Zondervan Corp.)
allows up to 100 verses to be quoted or reprinted for non-commercial
purposes. I may have completely missed why you are troubled by not having a
copyright-free modern text. I just wished to throw my thoughts into the mix.
Best wishes on your well-intentioned goals.
The 100 verse limit makes for a very short E-text Commentary on the Gospel
According to Mark.
Keeping things the way they are, with the world standard(s) for scholarly
interpretation of the Bible locked up in copyrighted, print versions,
has all the advantages of Mercantilism over Laissez Faire Capitalism.
We are taking the first, shaky steps towards the =Nouveau Regime=.
This is the way scholarly collaborations will be conducted in the future.
Please join us and help that future come about.