Many modern bible translations are published with copyright claims. However published in the work is not only permission but a command to make a copy. This can be found in Deuteronomy 17:18:

And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites:

You might argue that this only applies to Kings. However Revelation 5:10 makes us all kings:

And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.

It seems to me that if the translators wanted to copyright their translations they would have to leave Deuteronomy 17:18 out. However they all include the verse and it appears, at least at face value, to supersede their copyright notice.

Is this a valid legal argument? Has this has ever been tested in a court of law? And if so, what was the outcome?

  • 1
    Even the KJV has an active copyright in Britain according to Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_James_Version#Copyright_status
    – Narnian
    Commented Feb 24, 2014 at 13:09
  • 2
    The notion that any country in which any particular book is printed should be obliged to submit its laws to a particular interpretation of the contents of that book is highly questionable, especially since we are commanded in the same Scriptures to submit ourselves to our governing authorities.
    – Narnian
    Commented Feb 24, 2014 at 13:13

4 Answers 4


It's an invalid legal argument and would fail if tested.

Copyright subsists in the arrangement of the words themselves within the literary work. The licence to copy is separate from the literary work.

Quite apart from copyright law, Dt 17:18 needs to read in context.

17 14 "When you come to the land which the LORD your God gives you, and you possess it and dwell in it, and then say, 'I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me'; 15 you may indeed set as king over you him whom the LORD your God will choose. One from among your brethren you shall set as king over you; you may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. 16 Only he must not multiply horses for himself, or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to multiply horses, since the LORD has said to you, 'You shall never return that way again.' 17 And he shall not multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly multiply for himself silver and gold. 18 "And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, from that which is in the charge of the Levitical priests..."

Note verse 15: "One from among your brethren you shall set as king over you." Even if that verse could be adduced to licence making copies, it would only apply to the king elected to rule over the people. It couldn't apply to everyone who was made a king by virtue of Revelation 5:10.


The original manuscripts are not copyrighted. It is only modern translations, constituting a "new work" in the eyes of the law that are afforded protection. I may not like the idea that every modern translation is copyrighted, but it is the accepted law of the land, and if you can find access to the originals (not as hard as you might think) and translate it yourself (a la the Wikisource translation, you are ok - allowing for Dt. 17:15.

Additionlly, the context of Dt. 17 clearly states, "when you enter the land." The context is clearly that these laws are restricted to covenant with Israel. The burden of proof on the exegete would be to show this applied outside of the land. Russia has laws that say it is okay to arrest people for things we find ok in the US. Doesn't mean they necessarily apply here.


There is a difference between copying the original text and copying someone's translation.

The original books of the Bible are mostly in Hebrew(OT) and Greek(NT). There are also Greek Bibles where both OT and NT are in Greek. There are many surviving manuscripts but they are not accessible to public. Most of them are in museums and libraries. You need permissions to copy from these antique books, otherwise you will need to steal them. Moreover, you won't find a manuscript with all the books of the Bible in it. You need to collect them from other manuscripts.

It's easy to get Greek Bibles for free. Some are - http://www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/manuscript.aspx http://www.scripture4all.org/OnlineInterlinear/Greek_Index.htm

It is the translations which have Copyrights. People invested time and money to translate the Bible into English and other languages. You can't just make a copy of those translations and sell it as if it is yours. It is equivalent to stealing.


If it were a valid legal argument, it would almost certainly never be tested in court.

If you were to copy, by hand, for your personal use only, any or all of a copyrighted translation, it's very doubtful that its publisher would sue you.

If they did sue, it's even less likely that they would win.

And even if they did win, the settlement amount would likely be the wholesale value of one copy, a negligible fraction of their legal costs.

But consider the conditions:

When he sits on the throne as king, he must copy for himself this body of instruction on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests.

  • The copy must be for yourself only.
  • It must be written by yourself, by hand, on a scroll.
  • The copying must be done in the presence of Levitical priests.

Even if you successfully argued that men called "Cohen" could be considered as Levitical priests, how many tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars would it cost you to hire them to watch you making the copy?

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