This year, Christians are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the first publication of the Authorised or King James version of the Bible. As an example the popular Spring Harvest festival has rightly chosen the Bible as it’s theme for this year’s event. It’s not just Christians either. Certainly here in the UK I have seen and heard of a lot of events and media productions based around the importance of the publication of one of the most popular translations of the Bible. Part of the enduring popularity is down to tradition, part of it will be down to the fact that a lot of Christians consider this to be the “only” version of the Bible and part of it – especially in recent times – will be because it is one of the few recognised translations outside of copyright control. Hey it was published in 1611 so any copyright on it must have expired by now – right?
### Freedom in the UK
Not in the UK it seems. I hadn’t realised this before and I am indebted to an identica/twitter friend @artsyhonker for highlighting it. The King James version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer are under Crown copyright in the UK. So far so good, the 1988 act brought Crown copyright into line with other copyright holders but both these publications are covered by Royal perogative. This peculiarity means that publishing of these texts in the UK can only occur under licence from the Queen’s Printer. Here’s an extract from the Wikipedia page on the BCP (emphasis mine):
> In the United Kingdom, the British Crown holds the rights to the Book of Common Prayer. The rights fall outside the scope of copyright as defined in statute law. Instead, they fall under the purview of the royal prerogative and as such, they are perpetual in subsistence. Publishers are licensed to reproduce the Book of Common Prayer under letters patent. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the letters patent are held by the Queen’s Printer, and in Scotland by the Scottish Bible Board. The office of Queen’s Printer has been associated with the right to reproduce the Bible for many years, with the earliest known reference coming in 1577. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the Queen’s Printer is Cambridge University Press. CUP inherited the right of being Queen’s Printer when they took over the firm of Eyre & Spottiswoode in the late 20th century. Eyre & Spottiswoode had been Queen’s Printer since 1901. Other letters patent of similar antiquity grant Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press the right to produce the Book of Common Prayer independently of the Queen’s Printer.
> **The terms of the letters patent prohibit those other than the holders, or those authorized by the holders from printing, publishing or importing the Book of Common Prayer into the United Kingdom**. The protection that the Book of Common Prayer, and the Authorized version, enjoy is the last remnant of the time when the Crown held a monopoly over all printing and publishing in the United Kingdom.
> This protection should not be confused with Crown copyright, or copyright in works of the United Kingdom’s government; that is part of modern UK copyright law. Like other copyrights, Crown copyright is time-limited and potentially enforceable worldwide. The non-copyright Royal Prerogative is perpetual, but applies only to the UK; though many other Royal Prerogatives apply to the other Commonwealth realms, this one does not.
I’d imagine there is – as ever – a grey area with regards what constitutes “publication” and I’m guessing the legislation doesn’t allow for such things as the web but what this means is that in the UK where the King James version was first published, we cannot legally reproduce any of the text without letters patent (a licence).
Those who read this blog (both of you) will know that I am particularly fond of writing about freedom, particularly when it comes to resources for Christians to use in worshipping God – and by worship I mean all its forms including just living. It seems I now have to correct something I said a few years ago whereby I referred to the KJV as public domain. Restrictive licencing on any Christian resource saddens me – more so when that resource is the Bible which is intended to free people.
You might be thinking that the Royal prerogative thing is a bit superfluous as the Crown is unlikely to prosecute an individual UK blogger (say) for reproducing ten verses of the KJV on a website. You might be thinking that anybody worth their salt would probably read a more modern translation (with the copyright issues surrounding that). You might be thinking that you can just get a copy from another country (any importer must be licenced also). In short: it’s easy for us to think this doesn’t matter. Except it does matter and it should matter. It should matter to all UK Christians that **400 years** after publication such an important text remains under tight publication controls. It should matter that while almost every other government and Crown text will eventually enter the public domain – for all to freely enjoy – two texts intended to bring people into closer fellowship with God will always have restrictions upon them. If a UK church wishes to publish some verses from the KJV in it’s bulletin, it should be able to do so without fear of breaking the law. Being in a situation where “it’s okay because they won’t prosecute” is unhelpful. If nobody will be prosecuted then the law is irrelevant. If we are reserving the law for cases where somebody may print off ten thousand copies then the law is pointless. Copyright exists to create a monopoly for the author (or copyright holder) of the work. If somebody prints 10,000 bibles and sells them who exactly is missing out here? After 400 years won’t the Crown (not the government in this case) have made enough money off the KJV in the past 400 years?
This year – of all years – the Royal prerogative on the KJV and the BCP should be surrendered. Place these texts in the public domain where they should be!