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Quoting Biblical text is technically a dicey proposition. While the original manuscripts are obviously public domain, not every translation is.

Indeed, the NIV even posts the following copyright notice on BibleGateway:

Copyright Information

The NIV text may be quoted in any form (written, visual, electronic or audio), up to and inclusive of five hundred (500) verses without express written permission of the publisher, providing the verses do not amount to a complete book of the Bible nor do the verses quoted account for twenty-five percent (25%) or more of the total text of the work in which they are quoted.

When the NIV is quoted in works that exercise the above fair use clause, notice of copyright must appear on the title or copyright page or opening screen of the work (whichever is appropriate) as follows:

THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

These Scriptures are copyrighted by the Biblica, Inc.™ and have been made available on the Internet for your personal use only. Any other use including, but not limited to, copying or reposting on the Internet is prohibited. These Scriptures may not be altered or modified in any form and must remain in their original context. These Scriptures may not be sold or otherwise offered for sale.

Given this, what significant translations of the Bible can I actually quote at length?

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It's unlikely that you'll need to quite the entire Bible in any scholarly setting. And quoting any copyrighted work for the purpose of commentary or scholarly discourse is perfectly acceptable. So, for any purpose on this site, I think any translation is acceptable to quote. –  svidgen May 31 '13 at 14:49
    
And before anyone says, "This would be better on Politics.SE," a certain moderator I'm very close to there says, "I want it on C.SE!" –  Affable Geek May 31 '13 at 18:04
    
Stop using your connections to get what you want!!! –  svidgen May 31 '13 at 18:28
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:)............. –  Affable Geek May 31 '13 at 18:28
    
Is anything soooo "public domain" or "copylefted" that a scholarly citation doesn't have to have an elaborate footnote, giving publisher's city, etc.? –  pterandon Jun 2 '13 at 12:40

8 Answers 8

up vote 19 down vote accepted

The issue with copyright translations.

One translation that was produced with the specific intention of avoiding copyright entanglements is the World English Bible. It is modernization of the American Standard Version (ASV) placed into the public domain. A paragraph from the site's FAQ is worth quoting:

The copyright laws of most nations and the international treaties that support them are a mixed blessing. By granting authors and translators a legal monopoly (for a limited, but very long, time) on the right of copying and “first sale” of their works, the law makers have made writing and translating very profitable for some people whose works are in great demand. This has, no doubt, been a factor in the creation of many of the good Modern English translations of the Holy Bible that we now enjoy. The problem with this system, with respect to the Holy Bible, is that it has had the effect of limiting distribution of God’s Word in modern languages. For example, I cannot legally post copies of the entire New International Version of the Holy Bible on my web site in a downloadable, searchable, and readily copyable format without the permission of the International Bible Society and Zondervan (copyright owner and publisher). Zondervan won’t grant such permission unless they get a significant royalty (they quoted me $10,000 + $10/copy distributed) and unless I convince them that my Bible search software is “good enough” for them. Needless to say, the Bible search software that I am writing with the intention of distributing as donorware will not come with the NIV.

Further, organizations such as The Gideons International that distribute Bibles must pay copyright holders a fee if they wish to give away a modern translation (such as the New King James Version) rather than the King James with all of it's Elizabethanisms. The restrictions can also have an impact on smaller scales. The NASB licence reads (emphasis in the original):

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.

These restrictions mean it's (probably) fine to quote a passage or two in an answer on Stack Exchange or in an article or book. But it's not possible to reprint an entire book of the Bible for the purposes of a "Manuscript Study" (AKA, "Communal Discovery Bible Study Method"). While I doubt the Lockman Foundation will have agents tracking down people who print out Mark for their devotional group to mark up, such a practice violates the intentions of the publisher who fronted the money and commissioned the translation. As Paul says:

The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.”—1st Timothy 5:17-18 (NASB)

Finally, many translations restrict derivative works (such as the WEB effort and my idea of making a Southern American Version™). The US laws concerning derivative works is complicated, but creators who don't want to deal with lawyers would be advised to base their work on translations free of copyright restrictions.

But God's Word should be free, man!

The Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts of the Bible are public domain (and a cornerstone of our cultural heritage). But it turns out that even the critical text is protected by copyright laws. For the general public, this is no great loss as there are plenty of unrestricted options and the licences for most translations allow for the most common uses of the texts. But all of this has serious implications for scholars who honor the wishes of the Bible publishers. It's tempting to get angry with the publishers or to ignore the restrictions.

However, we have a duty to comply with the licences of our translations so that the hard-working folks who produce them can afford to keep laboring. Most of them are reasonable people who are as interested in seeing God's Word preached as you are. In fact I'll let the Crossway (publishers of the ESV) blog have the final word:

We're not going to come after you if you don't cite quotes from the ESV according to these guidelines. But we'd appreciate it if you did. Using the letters “ESV” also helps us track the popularity of the ESV in the blogosphere.

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I'm going to add WEB to my list (I'm assuming you'll be okay with that), but I like how your post really gets to the heart of the issues, ergo the check mark! –  Affable Geek May 31 '13 at 17:52
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@Affable Geek: No problem. This post started as an edit, but it got too big to fit in a bullet point. ;-) –  Jon Ericson May 31 '13 at 17:56

In the United States, Copyright law has two basic categories - protected works and public domain. When a work has been around long enough (currently 95 years after the first publication or 70 years after the author's death) it enters the public domain, and is therefore allowed to be reproduced at will.

According to the "Copyright Act", any work published prior to 1923 is in the public domain. This means many older translations are fair use:

  • King James Version
  • Revised Standard Version (but not the NRSV)
  • Duoay-Rheims
  • Young's Literal
  • Darby
  • JPS Bible (but not the New JPS nor the Jerusalem Bible)

Additionally, some translations were specifically geared to avoid this issue.

  • The World English Bible (WEB)
  • The New English Translation - i.e the "Net" Bible Note: Does not apply if you charge for it, though...
  • The WikiSource Translation :)
  • The English Standard Version ESV is copyrighted, but the terms are intentionally loose:

    When quotations from the ESV text are used in non-saleable media, such as church bulletins, orders of service, posters, transparencies, or similar media, a complete copyright notice is not required, but the initials (ESV) must appear at the end of the quotation. Publication of any commentary or other Bible reference work produced for commercial sale that uses the English Standard Version must include written permission for use of the ESV text.

Finally, many translations follow the standard of 500 verses, not to exceed 20% of the printed work. This list includes the following translations:

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See also this Meta comment about KJV and the associated discussion. –  Andrew Leach May 31 '13 at 13:18
    
You'll find a list of English text Bibles with their date of publication on this page: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_Bible_translations As per the answer above, you'll want to choose the ones that were published 75 years ago or more from this year. –  Steve May 31 '13 at 13:40
    
What is an "autor"? :-) (I guess your browser does not have spell checking enabled.) NIV should be listed separately because it is 25% and "as shown above" might be better as "as detailed in the question". (I would edit it, but I am not certain how NIV should be handled--separate or use "limited number of verses (typically 500) composing no more than a modest percentage (typically 20%) of the writing" with "(VERSE_COUNT, PERCENTAGE)" for each translation. Thanks for correcting the copyright information. (But I am still going to be left with a comment attached! :-( ) –  Paul A. Clayton Jun 13 '13 at 19:45

Of the non-public domain translations, the NET Bible has the most liberal licence for copying passages - you can read its licence. You can copy, but not alter or distribute commercially.

If you wish to have complete freedom to act without legal restriction then you need a public domain translation. There are a number of translations which are out of copyright due to age. These are in the public domain, but their language tends to be archaic and their scholarship dates from before our modern knowledge of manuscripts etc. Other people have mentioned the World English Bible, which is a revision of the old ASV and has been released into the public domain. Think of it as similar to the ESV in style though based on the majority Byzantine texts in the NT.

Another option, though it only covers the NT and part of the OT at this time, is the Open English Bible (which as a disclaimer I'm involved in). This is attempting to create a modern English translation which is completely free of copyright restriction, so that you can use it however you feel appropriate.

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Hi Russell and welcome to Christianity. Thank you for bringing the OEB to my attention; this is the first I've heard of the project. It sounds like you might be just the sort of expert we are looking to attract and I hope you will find the time to answer (and perhaps ask) some more questions. I'd also like to direct your attention to Biblical Hermeneutics, which is our sister site where translation questions sometimes get migrated. In any case, thank you for the contribution and I look forward to exploring the OEB project! –  Jon Ericson Jun 4 '13 at 22:20

I have compiled a database of known public domain Bible translations. My compilation includes the following:

Versions available:

  • American Standard-ASV1901 (ASV)
  • Bible in Basic English (BBE)
  • Darby English Bible (DARBY)
  • King James Version (KJV)
  • Webster's Bible (WBT)
  • World English Bible (WEB)
  • Young's Literal Translation (YLT)

This database is available on Github.

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Hi, and welcome to Christianity SE. I have suggested an edit that doesn't look so spammy - when you get a chance check out our tour page and what makes us different than other sites - I hope you'll stick around and provide some valuable contributions. –  Ryan Frame Jan 11 at 17:19
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Thanks for the edit and the welcome! I will have a look around. –  1Up Jan 11 at 21:03

You should also look at the Open English Bible here:

http://openenglishbible.org/

The Open English Bible project aims to create the first modern English translation of the Bible which is completely free of copyright restrictions and available without cost for any purpose.

The OEB has no restrictions on what its readers and users can do with it (for both good and bad). You may quote it, publish it in part or full, on their blogs, in your churches, remix it, reword it, correct its egregious translation mistakes or indeed add your own.

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Welcome to C.SE. When you get the chance, please check out our tour and specifically How we are different than other sites. This is a good answer! –  Affable Geek Oct 11 '13 at 15:46

Cambridge University holds the copyright to the King James version (through a centuries-long series of transfers of ownership rights), but only in the United Kingdom. I think the King James version can be freely quoted in books published in the U.S. and other countries. Source: http://www.cambridge.org/about-us/who-we-are/queens-printers-patent

Also see Wikipedia for a long article on why Cambridge holds the King James copyright. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_James_Version

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Welcome to the site! What follows next has nothing to do with the quality of your answer (which is good); it's just standard to help new visitors avoid misunderstanding the site (as I did at first). As a new visitor, I'd recommend checking out the following two posts, which are meant to help newcomers "learn the ropes": the help page and How we are different than other sites?. I hope to see you around! –  Anonymous Apr 6 at 3:17

The Following is a list of Public Domain bibles I tend to use.

  • Septuagint in American English 2012
  • World English Bible
  • Twentieth Century New Testament
  • Open English Bible [an update of the 20cNT]
  • The Updated King James Version
  • The American Standard Version
  • The Work of God's Children Illustrated Bible (based on Challoner Revision of the Douay–Rheims Bible)
  • The Bible in Basic English
  • Noah Webster's Revision.
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American Standard Version is in the public domain.

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This is an answer, yes, but you have given no proof. Should we just take your word for it; the word of a stranger on the internet? If you can find a link to a credible source that verifies this claim then it would be a good answer. –  fredsbend Oct 6 '13 at 6:50
    

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