Can You Quote the Bible?
The Bible is an interesting case when it comes to copyright and public domain. The King James Version of the Bible was first published in the 1600s, for example, so it is technically in the public domain—everyone involved in creating that version of the book has been dead for centuries, after all. That means that it must be free to quote and use in my writing, doesn’t it?
Yes and no. It may be in the public domain, but this particular translation of the Bible has something that is called a Royal prerogative. That means, essentially, that the Queen owns the book and you can’t use it as it’s protected by a different law besides copyright. For the King James Version, non-commercial or educational uses are permitted with some restrictions—for example, how many verses you can use. Other than that, if you wanted to quote that translation of the Bible in your novel and sell it, you need permission.
If, however, you wanted to quote from a different translation, you would need permission from the relevant publisher of that specific version, unless you followed their stated restrictions.
If you wanted to quote from the New King James Version—which is different from the King James Version—you would need to ensure you complied with the restrictions stated by the copyright holder, which in this case is Thomas Nelson. In detail, that means you cannot quote more than 500 verses in total, the quotes is no more than a quarter of the overall word count, you are not quoting an entire book of the Bible, you are not writing a Biblical commentary or reference book, and the quotes are properly and correctly cited including chapter and verse, as per the Thomas Nelson specifics. You can then quote this translation for free, as long as you add in a copyright statement, and as long as you are not creating a product that uses a standalone verse (like artwork, notecards, crafts, novelty products, or jewellery), creating a chart, map, illustration, footnote, study note, reference material, or using scripture in lyrics or musical compositions. In other words, if you wanted to quote a few verses from the New King James Version at the beginning of your novel, you could as long as you cite it properly, but if you wanted to use a few verses in the text itself without citing the extract properly, you couldn’t without seeking permission and potentially paying royalty fees.
If, instead, you wanted to quote from the New International Version, you would need to check the rules from Zondervan, who are the current publisher, as long as it is a post-2011 translation. No permissions are granted for pre-2011 translations of the New International Version.
There are loopholes like this for almost every translation, other than a few like the World English Bible which are truly public domain—you can use those as you like.
This doesn’t just cover the Bible, but all holy scriptures. It’s largely down to how holy books such as the Bible are created and produced, via translations. The vast majority of books in this category are not the original version—they’ve been translated or reproduced, or they are an alternative version of the original. What this means is that you cannot actually quote the Bible as a definitive, but you can quote a specific translation of the Bible.
So, yes, you can quote the Bible or other holy books in your commercial work, but there are a truckload of caveats to that. Consider the version, what book, what country you want to publish the novel in, how much of the book you’re quoting, and a bunch of other things. If the quote is vital to the story you’re writing, it will require a significant amount of research to make sure that you can quote it or that you obtain the permissions you need. Of course, you could save yourself the hassle and not use the quote at all. To do so is a complicated part of an already complicated copyright law so make sure that whatever you do, that you do the research first, and don’t just assume it’s allowed! I can’t imagine it would be fun getting sued by the Queen—especially as she literally, legally, can’t physically lose in her court of law.
© 2019 David Chitty
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.