The Bible is one of the most important books in history. It has been read, copied, translated, and cited millions of times over in the past several thousand years. So how does such an archaic book work with our more modern copyright laws? Well, it depends on the version. Modern versions published within the last few decades are protected under copyright laws just like any other published work. So if you’re going to be publishing your own work with a considerable amount of biblical citations, if you’re developing a Bible app that would contain the text of the Bible, or if you’re just looking for a free pdf of a Bible that you can print off or import into your iPad for taking notes, you’re most likely going to want to look for a Bible that’s in the public domain.
Disclaimer: this blog post is based primarily on U.S. copyright laws. Also, I’m not a lawyer. I am not giving you legal advice. I’m simply offering you the information put forth by these translations themselves. If you have any further legal questions, please consult a law professional!
As a general rule, anything published in the U.S. in the year 1924 or before, it is in the public domain. This also applies to translations of the Bible. However, the only major modern biblical translation in the public domain is the World English Bible, which was willingly dedicated to free public use. Below is a list of a few of the most popular Bible translations that are currently in the public domain and are not protected by copyright.
- King James Version
- American Standard Version
- World English Bible
- Young’s Literal Translation
- The Darby Translation
- The Jewish Publication Society Bible
- Webster’s Bible
In the sections that follow, we’ll take a closer look at the Bible translations that are in the public domain and talk about how they got there. After that, we’ll find out how we can legally use text from a copyrighted Bible version, complete with examples from the most popular translations.
What Is the Public Domain and How Does It Affect Bible Translations?
“Public domain” refers to any creative work not protected under copyright laws. Essentially, something that exists in the public domain belongs to the public. Anyone can take it and pretty do whatever they want to do with it. Usually something enters the public domain because its copyright has expired. But someone can also intentionally place their work in the public domain, as well. As we’ll soon see, these two methods for entering the public domain apply to several different Bible versions as well.
First, let’s take a look at what it takes for a work’s copyright to expire.
Bible Versions With Expired Copyright
Copyright and public domain is a bit confusing. Anything published in 1977 and before enters the public domain 96 years after its publish date. Anything published after 1977 will not enter the public domain until 70 years after the death of its author. Or, for a work with multiple authors, 70 years after the last surviving author’s death.
Because of this, any Bible translation published prior to 1925 is considered in the public domain. This includes versions such as the American Standard Version (1901), the Darby Translation (1867), Douay-Rheims (1899), Young’s Literal Translation (1862), Jewish Publication Society Bible (1917), Webster’s Bible (1833), and more.
The strange exception to this rule is the King James Version. The KJV will technically never lose its copyright, which is held in perpetuity by the British Monarch. While other countries have free rein to print and reproduce the KJV, the rights to the text are more restricted in England. But outside of England, you can pretty much operate as if the KJV’s copyright has already expired.
So far, all the translations we’ve talked about that exist in the public domain are old translations with archaic language and access to less-than-ideal textual evidence. Luckily, there is a more modern translation that has willingly forgone its copyright in order to allow the public to have free access to the scriptures.
The World English Bible (WEB)
The second way for a work to enter the public domain is through dedication. These publishers willingly give up their copyright in order for ownership to immediately go to the public without a 70-96 year wait. This is what the publishers of the World English Bible did. They saw the need for a Bible in modern English to exist in the public domain, and they graciously filled that need.
The World English Bible (2000) is a modern update of the American Standard Version. It has freshened up the archaic language of the ASV, smoothed out its grammar, and made it more palatable to English speakers today. They also updated the translation in a few places to reflect the Greek Majority Text. The best part? It’s 100% in the public domain. Here’s a quote from their preface:
Because the World English Bible is in the Public Domain (not copyrighted), it can be freely copied, distributed, and redistributed without any payment of royalties. You don’t even have to ask permission to do so. You may publish the whole World English Bible in book form, bind it in leather and sell it. You may incorporate it into your Bible study software. You may make and distribute audio recordings of it. You may broadcast it. All you have to do is maintain the integrity of God’s Word before God, and reserve the name “World English Bible” for faithful copies of this translation.WEB Preface
I do have a few qualms with this translation. Like its sibling, the New American Standard Bible, it’s a very rigidly word-for-word translation. If you’ve been around this blog before, you’ll know that I’m not super crazy about rigidity when it comes to translating the Bible, although it definitely has its place. Unlike the NASB, the WEB uses the Byzantine majority text as its textual basis for the New Testament. Again, it has its place. It’s not a deal breaker for me. But I prefer translations based on an eclectic Greek New Testament. Understandably, that would have been a major undertaking for an online public domain Bible. So I’ll take what I can get and I won’t throw a fit.
At the end of the day, the WEB is a strong translation with the incredibly convenient lack of copyright. So if you’re looking for a modern Bible with absolutely no distribution restrictions, the World English Bible is definitely worth your consideration.
However, there are a few other options for you, even for popular versions that are protected by a copyright. Even though Bible translations are technically copyrighted, many are very gracious when it comes to citation and distribution. Check out the following considerations for how to cite and distribute copyrighted versions of the Bible.
How Do You Cite a Copyrighted Bible Translation?
If you’re seeking to use a popular modern version of the Bible, and you’re not a fan of the WEB, then you may still be in luck. Depending on what it is you’d like to do with the biblical text, there’s a good chance you can still use copyrighted Bible versions for certain tasks without having to pay any royalties and without having to ask for permission.
Distribute the Entire Text of a Copyrighted Version (Without Monetary Compensation)
If you’re looking to reproduce and distribute an entire text of a bible version and charge money for it, you’re going to have to go with something in the public domain. However, if you’re not planning on being compensated for distribution, you can also check out one of my personal favorite translations: the New English Translation (NET). It’s a great translation, don’t get me wrong. But the real value of this version comes in the 60,932 translation notes, that comment on anything and everything, from detailed linguistic explanations, to cultural context of the scripture, to commentary-style interpretations, and so much more. It’s a fantastic resource for Bible readers everywhere, and it has probably the loosest copyright of other modern versions.
You can copy, cite, and distribute the NET in full without any permission. The only caveat here is that you can’t charge money for it. So if you’re looking to create a Bible app or computer program, you can offer the NET as a free add-on. However, you can’t turn the NET text into a beautiful journaling Bible and sell it for a profit. There are a few other guidelines to follow, like how to attribute the text to the NET. If you’re interested, you can click here to read more about their copyright and distribution policy.
Cite Portions of a Copyright Version
If you’re writing a book and are looking to cite a modern version protected by copyright laws, you can do so with some restrictions. The restrictions are mainly the same from version to version. How you cite and attribute the version differs from version to version, so be sure to check out the “permissions” page for each version before you cite the work.
The New American Standard Bible
I’ve singled out the NASB here because it has a more gracious policy than the rest of the versions. Here’s a quote from the copyright page:
The text of the New American Standard Bible® may be quoted and/or reprinted up to and inclusive of one thousand (1,000) verses without express written permission of The Lockman Foundation, providing the verses do not amount to a complete book of the Bible nor do the verses quoted account for more than 50% of the total work in which they are quoted.
You can quote up to 1,000 verses without express permission. You can’t use an entire book fo the Bible, and it can’t be 50% of the work. For instance, if you’re writing a book, you can’t fill up half the book with citations from the NASB. But you can fill up just less than half the book with citations from the NASB, which is closer than you’ll get with any other translation. And with the ability to cite up to 1,000 verses in a single work without permission, you really have a lot of leeway there.
Again, check the copyright page for more details like how to cite the Bible version.
Just About Everything Else
Like I said, the New American Standard Bible is pretty gracious with their permissions policy. In fact, they are exactly twice as gracious as just about every other modern translation. Aside from the NET and the NASB, here are the pretty typical requirements for citing from a copyrighted version.
You can cite from a standard copyrighted version of the Bible, as long as those citations do not…
- Add up to more than 500 verses
- Contain a complete book of the Bible
- Account for 25% or more of the total work
So if you’re writing a book and want to cite the NIV, you’ll have to make sure that the scripture references are less than one fourth of the entire book.
Here are some modern versions that follow this policy, along with links to their copyright pages for more legal information.
- The New International Version (permissions page)
- The New Revised Standard Bible (permissions page)
- The New Living Translation (permissions page)
- The Message Bible (permissions page)
- The English Standard Version* (permissions page)
* Note that the English Standard Version is actually a bit stricter than the rest here, as they require that the citations don’t make up more than 50% of an entire book of the Bible.
So that’s about it for public domain and copyright laws when it comes to citing or distributing a biblical text. It’s confusing stuff, to be sure. But when in doubt, just cite from the World English Bible. It’s not a perfect translation by any means, but it’s far better than some of the public domain alternatives. And it’s better than finding yourself with a copyright infringement letter from Zondervan.
Nevertheless, a need remains for a good, modern, idea-for-idea translation of the Bible whose New Testament is based on an eclectic version of the Greek manuscripts to enter into the public domain. Is that too much to ask? Actually, yes. I think it might be.
Alright, it’s your turn. What translations have I missed? What experience do you have with citing or distributing the biblical text? Do you have any tips and tricks that might help someone else out? Leave it in the comments below!