Podcast episode 3
Who Really Owns God’s Word? - Jon’s Journey to Freely Giving Scripture
Through many twists and turns, Jon comes to the conviction that God is actually the owner of his Word, and that the commercialization and legal restriction of it is contrary to the gospel, the spirit of Christ, and Scripture itself. Visit his website copy.church to learn more.
Hi, I’m Jon, I founded a company for creating apps for mission, called Gracious Tech. I also started Let’s copy, church, which is a website advocating for releasing ministry resources from copyright, which you can find at copy.church.
While I am passionate about the complete free giving of ministry resources, it has been a long journey where I have at times gone back and forth about what terms ministry resources should be licensed under. So I’ll share a bit about what has led me to have such strong convictions about what Scripture says on this topic, and how it should be applied to us today.
My first encounters with copyright and trying to monetize creations was back in high school. For my major work in my last year of high school, I developed a software program designed to assist students in their studies, helping them manage their assessments, and keep track of things.
During that time, I experienced what I now like to call “pre-launch anxiety.” You see, after dedicating an enormous amount of time to crafting and perfecting something, you begin to become very possessive over it.
What if someone comes along and takes what I’ve worked so hard to create? What if they copy it and potentially profit from all the effort I’ve poured into it? Especially when you’ve poured over a year’s worth of work into it, as I had. It’s a daunting thought.
In an attempt to protect my study program, I reached out to an intellectual property lawyer. I wanted to learn everything I could about copyright and patents, hoping to safeguard my creation. Looking back, it’s quite amusing to think about it. Back then, I hadn’t fully grasped just how expensive legal services could be.
And ironically, I never actually got around to publishing that project, due to becoming busy with other commitments. Despite never releasing it, I had spent a lot of mental energy worrying that someone might copy and profit from what I had created. But such fears in hindsight were very irrational.
Gospel comparison website
Later on, I had this idea of using my programming skills for the sake of the gospel, and I came up with a website for comparing the Gospels to more easily see where they overlap. These days, you can easily find a variety of tools for comparing the gospels. But back then, they were pretty much non-existent.
Little did I know, this endeavor would be my first introduction to the complexities of Bible copyright.
I was excited about the project and worked tirelessly on it. However, at some point along the way, it hit me—copyright might pose a problem. So, I decided to dig into the licensing terms printed at the front of my Bible, hoping to find some clarity. Well, let’s just say it was a bit of a reality check. It turned out that I wouldn’t be able to make or publish my idea after all.
Feeling a bit disheartened, I reached out to a Christian lecturer at my university, seeking advice on the copyright matter and what steps I should take. Unfortunately, their guidance didn’t provide any practical solutions. At that time, as someone unfamiliar with copyright and the publishing industry in general, I had no idea that seeking permission was even an option.
I was clueless about the process and, honestly, even if I managed to figure it out, I highly doubted that anyone would pay attention to a university student like me. So, in the end, I had to let go of the project. It wasn’t because I couldn’t technically make it happen, but the legal hurdles made it clear that pursuing it wasn’t worth it.
Open source plugin
A while later, I did actually have a project that took off to some extent. It was an exciting time for me because it was my first project to take off. I created a plugin for a text editor, and it gained quite a bit of popularity. During that period, I had delved deep into the world of Linux, the open-source operating system.
I fully embraced the open-source software culture and transitioned away from Windows. My computer ran solely on open-source software, and it was great. The beauty of it was that it was completely free—a gift from people all around the world who generously donated their time, efforts, and talents to create something valuable without asking for anything in return.
The alignment between this open-source ethos and the principles of the gospel deeply inspired me. So, when it came to releasing my plugin, I made the conscious decision to offer it for free as well. In the Linux software community, there is this culture and expectation that you should share your creations freely, openly licensing them.
Embracing that culture brought me great joy. I released my plugin as open source, and soon enough, hundreds of people started using it. When I shared this with my friends, they thought I was crazy. They couldn’t quite understand why I had created something that was gaining traction without seeking any financial gain from it.
For them, it just didn’t make sense. But for me, it was a source of joy. Seeing people benefit from something I had made, without any expectation of payment, was very satisfying, even though it wasn’t even a Christian project.
Open source Bible apps
Around that time, I discovered some great open-source Bible apps that were free to use and free to improve too.
However, I soon realized that none of the popular Bible translations were available, particularly the NIV, which I had grown up using and was the default translation for most churches around me. Interestingly, the ESV was an option for a while, but as of the last few years, even that has ceased to be the case.
I began diving into forums and reading the comments of developers who were trying to gain access to these Bible translations. It was during this process that I learned about the challenges they faced due to licensing restrictions. I found it strange to think that the very organizations entrusted with spreading God’s word were the ones hindering its accessibility.
At the time, I didn’t possess a strong theological foundation to question their practices, but deep within me, I felt that something was amiss. It seemed contrary to the spirit of the gospel. Unfortunately, I lacked a solid understanding of how to address this issue and could only hope that one day they would have a change of heart.
I held on to the belief that things would eventually change. I believed in the future of open source, and as it turns out, I was right in many ways. Nowadays, open-source software is running on almost everyone’s phones and computers, often without them even realizing it. Commercial software still exists, of course, but open source has achieved incredible success and has become virtually ubiquitous across all devices.
With that in mind, I couldn’t fathom that this state of affairs would persist indefinitely. I assumed that these Bible organizations would eventually come to their senses and recognize the futility of restricting God’s word, especially when used in non-commercial apps.
However, I gradually relinquished any hopes of creating something myself, mainly because I was just a lone individual without much experience in such matters at that time.
App for sharing Scripture
Many years later, while serving on the mission field, I initially considered leaving my IT experience behind. However, when sharing the Gospel with different friends I met, I came up with the idea of creating an app to more easily share Scripture with them.
In the environment I was working in, people had no Christian background whatsoever. They had little knowledge of the Bible or Jesus, and simply handing them an entire Bible would be overwhelming for them. They didn’t know where to start or how to find Jesus within its pages.
To address this, I believed it would be more helpful to collect key passages that individuals could read without getting lost. This approach would gradually build their knowledge and encourage them to explore more passages, eventually leading them to read the entire Bible.
However, I was determined not to include my own commentary. As a missionary, I had developed a skepticism towards resources created by others, as it was a lot of work to discern the quality and accuracy of materials written in a language I was still learning myself.
Instead, I figured that quoting plain Scripture would be the most valuable approach. Fellow workers would immediately recognize and trust the words of the Bible, eliminating any potential concerns. I assumed there wouldn’t be any licensing issues since I would be using a relatively small amount of Scripture, usually 10 to 15 small passages at a time, well below the typical 500-verse limit.
However, I soon discovered that I hadn’t fully grasped the intricacies of Bible licensing terms. Almost all Bibles include a clause stating that you can quote Scripture up to 500 verses, as long as you don’t share a complete book AND as long as the quoted verses don’t exceed 25% of the total text in which they are used. Many people misinterpret this as limiting the quoted verses to 25% of a book in the Bible. When actually, it refers to the work in which the verses are quoted. This means that sharing plain Scripture is forbidden. Scripture could only make up a quarter of the content on a given page, and the rest had to be filled with personal commentary.
This restriction directly contradicted my intentions for the app. I didn’t want to add my own commentary or paraphrase Scripture. I wanted other ministry workers to use it with confidence, trusting it was the Bible and nothing else. The more I learnt, the more I realized that the licensing terms would effectively kill the concept of my app.
At the time, I had never approached a publisher for permission, and I had no idea how to go about that process. I attempted to research online, but it seemed complex and required establishing my own organization. I contemplated approaching the publisher under the umbrella of the organization I was a part of, but it wouldn’t be scalable. Even if I obtained permission for myself, others would still lack permission to use the app for their own purposes. This directly contradicted the fundamental goal of the project—to create a tool that allowed customizing the content shared, allowing others to choose their own sets of passages.
Considering all these factors, it became clear that asking for permission wouldn’t be a viable solution. The very essence of my project relied on enabling others to create their own story sets as well. Without that possibility, the scope of what I was trying to achieve would be severely limited.
I brainstormed various techniques, such as combining different translations to ensure no single translation exceeded a quarter of the work. However, none of these approaches proved suitable, and I was unwilling to exploit any loopholes. I wanted to operate in good faith. After much effort and working on the project for over a year, it became stuck due to those legal barriers and never ended up getting properly launched.
Secure newsletter software
Later on, I established my own organization dedicated to creating apps for mission work. After many years of ministry experience, I had many ideas for projects, particularly ones involving the Bible and different ways of engaging with Scripture. However, as I sat down to evaluate these ideas and consider the roadblocks that might arise, I realized that all the Bible-related projects faced legal hurdles.
I pondered whether these projects would be feasible at all. Technically, I had the skills to create them, and I knew I could overcome any technical obstacles. However, if I encountered a legal barrier, it could bring everything to a halt. This was especially true considering that most Christians rely on only one or two Bible translations.
If my app didn’t include the translations people trusted, it would be rendered useless to a significant number of Christians, not just in English but in other languages as well. It didn’t matter how innovative or feature-rich the app was; without the right translations, it wouldn’t gain traction. This realization made me think: even if I approached publishers for permission, I would likely need to present them with a prototype to demonstrate the app’s value. This meant doing a substantial amount of work upfront, only for them to potentially reject the idea. If they did, it would be a dead-end for the project.
Rather than taking that uncertain path, I opted to focus on other app ideas that would prove valuable to missionaries and others. As a result, my organization’s first major app was secure newsletter software, which gained popularity. Today, there are hundreds of users finding it helpful to safely connect with their supporters.
But my passion has always been to create apps that engage with Scripture. After successfully launching the newsletter app, I turned my attention back to the Bible-focused apps I had in mind. I knew I had to find a way to make it work, so I started researching Bible APIs—which are platforms that power Bible apps by providing access to various translations.
However, I soon discovered that even these platforms had their own set of terms and conditions. They imposed request limits and cache limits, and while some were quite generous, they still presented rigid boundaries. If I exceeded those limits, I would have to enter into an agreement with the organization behind the platform, which brought uncertainties. Would I have to pay? What would be the cost of it all? And even if I reached an agreement, would I obtain the necessary permissions, or would I hit a roadblock?
This added another layer of legal complexity on top of dealing with the licenses of Bible translations. Not only that, but some platforms required collecting data from users, which goes against my organization’s value of being privacy-focused. They require such measures out of fear that their translations will be abused in some way.
The reality however is that such measures are non-sensitical, as copying Scripture is incredibly easy. Even an amateur programmer could write a script to rip off entire translations from Bible Gateway or Bible.com. They could do it in a day.
I decided none of these APIs were suitable for the kind of projects I wanted to create. So I realized I’d have to create my own Bible platform from scratch. I developed it as an open-source project, allowing anyone to contribute to it or create their own version. They could customize it according to their needs and use it however they saw fit. It has so far turned out to be far more efficient than the other platforms available. It is faster, cheaper to run, and doesn’t burden users with authentication requirements or locked content.
Digital rights system for Bible translations
In order to get permission to use Bible translations I needed access to a digital rights system which the majority of the world’s Bible translations use. Naively, I thought that by gaining access to this system, it would be easy to obtain permission for using various Bible translations worldwide. From a technological standpoint, it’s incredibly simple to incorporate multiple languages into an app. So, I wanted to ensure that my app catered to users across the globe, not just a single country or a specific language group.
When I gained access to the platform, I quickly realized that it only granted me permission to request permission. After spending over a decade getting to this point, by starting my own organization, registering it as a non-profit, dealing with finances and business matters, and establishing a reputation through app launches and collaborations with mission agencies… In the end, all I could do in the system was ask for permission!
I discovered that there were hundreds of rights holders and thousands of translations within the system. Forming individual agreements for each translation proved to be a very tedious process. It meant having to connect with numerous rights holders, explain my use case, and try to convince them of its value. In return, they would present their own conditions, including reporting requirements on the number of users and, in some cases, demand royalties and payment, or even collect personal data from users.
Obtaining permissions for all the world’s translations would be an incredibly expensive endeavor due to the royalty payments alone. Moreover, it would take decades to navigate and finalize agreements for such a vast number of translations. The average back-and-forth email exchange when seeking permission can take months.
As a result, there are only a handful of organizations in the world, that have managed to include a substantial number of translations in their apps. Bible.com, in particular, stands out as the platform that has the largest collection of translations because they have been active since the early days of the iPhone. They’ve had the time to establish those agreements and have grown to such prominence that new translations often approach them for inclusion.
For any other developer starting from scratch, it’s a difficult task, as they lack the recognition and legal status necessary to easily secure such permissions.
Let’s copy, church
So it was actually when I had reached the point of starting to secure access to translations myself that I decided I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to be part of the commercialization and restricting of access to Scripture.
And so I had a decision to make. Should I invest many more years in attempting to secure translations for my apps, likely facing numerous rejections and demanding reporting requirements that conflicted with privacy concerns? It would only make my apps less efficient and more complex, consuming an enormous amount of time. It seemed like a complete waste of my efforts.
Instead, I pondered whether I should spend my time advocating for change and promoting the free sharing of Scripture, as Jesus commanded. For me, the choice was clear. Rather than getting entangled in contractual obligations with various Bible societies, I resolved to devote my time to advocating for change. And that’s when I started the website Let’s copy, church, which you can find at copy.church.
One of my first initiatives was a page that explains the restrictive nature of these licenses. I delved into the licenses of the most popular modern English translations and compared them, coming up with an objective scoring system based on their legal text. This scoring system offered a clear depiction of what you could and couldn’t do with these translations, contrasting them with openly licensed or public domain translations. By doing so, people could understand the stark differences between commercial translations and those freely available.
During the creation of this website and while discussing these matters in my newsletters, a friend of mine mentioned a book called “The Dorean Principle” by Conley Owens. The subtitle immediately caught my attention: “A biblical response to the commercialization of Christianity.” It aligned perfectly with the topics I had begun addressing myself.
Around the same time, my church was considering using a paid platform for discipleship courses, and we were discussing its potential usefulness. After a brief evaluation of its content, I noticed its high price and, more strikingly, the language used to market it. The slogans and marketing tactics mirrored those employed by profit-driven businesses: phrases like “pricing made simple,” and “unlimited means unlimited,” and “choose the best plan for your needs.” They even featured discounts like “50% off.” It was disturbing to see how similar these marketing strategies were to those of any other commercial venture solely focused on making money.
It was at that point I began speaking out not only about licensing issues but also about how ministry itself had become commercialized. Throughout my endeavors, I worked tirelessly to make my works freely accessible, removing barriers whenever possible. Meanwhile, other organizations erected paywalls and sought to extract money from people. I knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t quite articulate why. I would look to Scripture, finding passages like “don’t muzzle the ox while it treads out the grain,” and “a worker deserves their wages”, so financing ministry was certainly a biblical thing.
But I also knew trying to profit from ministry was inconsistent with the spirit of the gospel and what Paul was trying to convey. Both Paul and Jesus had demonstrated a willingness to give freely, yet these websites and services were priced and marketed in ways that were unnecessary.
So reading “The Dorean Principle” was a breath of fresh air. Suddenly, everything fell into place. It connected all the pieces of the puzzle I had been grappling with for years, deep inside. This principle helped me articulate what I had been sensing all along.
While I am concerned about how various forms of ministry have been commercialized, my primary focus remains on Scripture. I believe that the commercialization and restriction of God’s Word poses the greatest challenge for the church. Scripture, after all, belongs to God. We even refer to it as the word of God. Is it God’s or not? If it belongs to God, then it should be freely shared, and no one has the right to commercialize or restrict it.