Friday, May 13, 2005

A Question of Law and Ethics

I previously mentioned the discussion that was taking place in the e-Sword group on Yahoo about the legality of using a third-party tool to import Bibles from the web into e-Sword. Since that time, I have done a lot of thinking (also some praying and talking) about the morality and legality of doing this and I want to put my conclusions current thinking out here publicly for others to read and respond to. Every time I sat down to write this, I thought of more issues or questions. Consider my opinion a work in progress rather than a finished argument on this issue.

The specific question is whether it is right to download a copy of the NIV from a publicly accessible web site, which is there specifically "for reading and researching scripture online," and import the text into e-Sword (for reading and researching scripture online). To add an additional wrinkle, a representative of the International Bible Society, which holds the copyright to the NIV, has said, "No," when asked this question.

At first blush, the easy answer is, "Of course not. The copyright holder has said you can't use it that way." But easy answers aren't always right answers and the issue needs deeper thinking before deciding whether that is the answer or not.

The first question that needs to be resolved is whether the act in question itself is morally wrong. Certainly there is no passage of scripture that talks about computers or the internet specifically or about copying electronic bits from one location to another so I believe the answer here is no. However, one could argue that the prohibition against theft is applicable, but if it is then exactly what is being stolen must be established since no physical goods have been taken from anyone. Another possible scriptural mandate that might apply is the admonition to obey the laws of our government insofar as they don't contradict God's commands. Is there some statute that might make either of these last two issues apply?

It turns out that there is law that addresses these issues, at least in the US. Our copyright law is designed in part specifically to protect intellectual property. (I must stress at this point that I am not a lawyer and nothing I say can be construed as legal advice. I might well be misusing this term or misconstruing the law. If that is the case, I welcome correction from any qualified attorneys. As far as what I say here goes, I am only relating my own thinking and understanding as a layman.) It might well be that both the prohibition against stealing (of intellectual property) and the admonition to abide by the law apply. On the other hand, the other purpose of copyright law is so that ideas and creative works can be disseminated widely in a way that is useful to the legitimate recipient of the work.

Copyright law is an entire branch of study in itself and is so complicated that I would not pretend to understand it in its entirety. On top of that, copyright law has been regularly amended in the last decades as broadcast and digital issues have arisen that weren't dreamed of when the early copyright law was written. I don't believe that the Internet related aspects of copyright law have been addressed adequately yet. After all, if copyright law were interpreted to prevent copying protected content to a local computer then that content could never be displayed on the web since the very act of browsing creates a local copy on each computer that views the page.

In a nutshell, as I understand copyright law, the owner of the copyright has the right to control distribution and modification and subsequent redistribution of copies of the copyrighted work. (I will leave out of this the whole question of the ethics of copyrighting the Bible. Some folks have problems with this idea, but for this discussion, let's just consider that what is copyrighted is the creative work involved in translating the original languages to English in the NIV.) They cede certain rights to purchasers and other legal recipients of copies of the material, while retaining other rights. One of the well-known rights end users (to borrow a computer term) have is called fair use. We can quote the material in other works, reproduce them in certain circumstances, etc. for various legitimate purposes. We can't photocopy and distribute or resell the copies however.

One way that I am using a particular translation of scripture is by typing it into my computer. Since I can't find an electronic version of this particular translation, this appears to be the only way that I can get it into e-Sword. I own a legitimate copy (actually, two) of this translation and believe that I am within my rights to convert it from a paper copy into an electronic version as long as I don't redistribute the electronic version. Case law appears to support this point of view, notably the RIAA vs. Diamond Multimedia case from 1999. (You can see the text of this law at This law established that one can "space shift" copyrighted material under the fair use clause of copyright law. Space shifting means to transfer or convert a work from one format into a different format for personal, non-infringing use, such as by converting a CD into mp3 files for use on a computer or mp3 player. The key seems to be that the use must be personal and non-infringing. So, for example, the resulting work cannot be redistributed unless the original and all copies go with it.

How does this apply to the NIV posted on a web site? Posting on a web site is a means of distribution to end users. By giving us the work in this way, the IBS has granted us all the legitimate rights to use the work that copyright law allows just as if we had purchased a copy. I believe that this includes the right to space shift the work, within the constraints outlined above.

Some folks at this point will question whether we are bound by the letter of the law or the spirit of the law. Oughtn't we respect the wishes of the copyright holder? My answer is no. The copyright holder specifically gives up the right to dictate our use of the work outside of the established limitations of copyright law. That is both the letter and the spirit of copyright.

One could argue that the IBS could restrain this use of the posted work with a click-through license agreement on either of the two sites where the NIV is posted. Aside from the fact that not only is there no click-through agreement, there is not even a readily available statement of legitimate usage of the work. The legal merits of click-through agreements are still under debate in the courts in any event, as far as I know.

There is another position with which I have some sympathy. Some folks feel that the IBS is entitled to profit from its work and that the way to guarantee this right is to only download the text if you own a hard copy of the work. Or, conversely, you should buy a copy if you are going to download it. While I don't think this is required by the law, it does appear to me an honorable position.

This is a complex issue and I encourage anyone reading this to think about it and research it for him- or herself, and not just to listen to my point of view. If anyone has any doubts about the legitimacy of this action, he should not do it.

In my next post, I'll discuss the tool that allows for this import into e-Sword.