Let The Bible Go Free!

Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group has an interesting take on the symbolic gesture by the current UK government of sending a King James Bible to every school in England. In a letter to the Guardian, Jim notes that: "The crown has a perpetual...

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Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group has an interesting take on the symbolic gesture by the current UK government of sending a King James Bible to every school in England. In a letter to the Guardian, Jim notes that:

"The crown has a perpetual copyright on the King James Bible, through 'letters patent' originally issued to stop unofficial editions and then to protect the country from ranters, shakers, Quakers, nonconformity and popery. Thus today we can't freely reprint, circulate passages, write commentaries and draw upon the text in the way we might with other texts of the time, such as Shakespeare's plays."

The glaring anachronism that needs sorting out here is to finally end the British state's monopoly on this text, which even its licensees consider unusual. But going deeper, the best gift to the nation's children would be to reform a copyright law that today stands in the way of 21st century learning and innovation. The specific case of the Bible means any child in the UK who uses the Bible in this version in their school work is breaking the law if they use a computer for it. They don't need a free Bible; they need that Bible set free.

But copyright law has much more wrong with it than this. It's based in a technology worldview where the act of "copying" is rare, where those engaging in copying are competitors (or heretics - or both), where copying needs to be controlled and taxed. In the worldview upon which copyright is based, the only act of copying any citizen is ever likely to encounter is an act by a supplier of a printed or recorded work. Use by a citizen would not be subject to any control under copyright law, because no uses in this worldview involve a copy.

As Lawrence Lessig points out so well in his book Free Culture, that worldview is entirely disconnected from modern technology. Today, every use of a copyright work by a citizen involves making a copy. Getting a book into a Kindle involves a copy. Getting music off a CD and into your loudspeakers involves a copy, let alone getting it onto your iPod. Watching a movie on DVD involves an act of copying, even without the use of computer. And so on.

Because of the way the Internet works, anything transmitted across it gets copied multiple times en route. None of the end-uses that are enabled by this "copying" would intuitively fall under the control of copyright law historically. Yet, when the law is taken to its logical extremes, all do today. This accident of law and technology means that publishers of all shades now have a way to dictate what you may read, when and where you may read it, how many times, whether you can share it with anyone else ... and more.

If this was just an intellectual exercise in extremes, it would be laughable. But it's not. Content owners - usually middlemen, not authors - have seized this new control greedily with both hands and are using it to mess with our culture. Books, music, movies, art and more are all now removed from normal cultural use by this accidental extension of the law. What would have been fine with scissors and paper is now illegal with bits.

Worse, there are dreadful proposals like SOPA and IP-PROTECT in the USA (and sure to show up here too) that take this extremism as the norm and are trying to change the law to make the illegality criminal, so they can lock us up for the electronic analogues of things like keeping a scrap-book or whistling our favourite tune.

If a UK government were to actually care about culture (rather than those who want to monopolise it), what better place to start than undoing the anachronistic Crown Copyright on the Authorised Version of the Bible? It's a worthless law that only afflicts the British, after all - the rest of the world see the King James Bible as centuries beyond copyright control.

So Michael Gove, if you really care about the kids and their cultural future, commit to citizen-focussed copyright reform. And start with the Bible.


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