The KJV Is A Copyrighted Translation


By Doug Kutilek


Religious publications in our day frequently contain reviews and critiques of the seemingly endless number of new Bible translations appearing in print. Some of these reviews are favorable while others are critical. Of those that are critical, the negative evaluations are sometimes soundly based, appealing to matters of text or translation with regard to manuscript evidence, lexical matters or points of grammar based on the original languages of the Bible. Others give irrelevant, unsound, or simply ignorant and foolish arguments for their rejection. Often, it is those who defend the King James Version as the only valid translation of the Bible in English who fall into this last category. This characterization is not true of every defender of the KJV, but it is true of many, perhaps most.


One very bizarre reason for rejecting the New American Standard Bible, the New International Version, or the New King James Version is that these--and apparently all other major versions since 1881--have been copyrighted. The argument is that the publishers, by copyrighting their new Bibles, insured themselves a hefty royalty from every copy sold, and in fact made the new translations with the sinister motive of making a profit on the gullibility of religious people who buy every new Bible that comes along. The KJV, in contrast, is characterized as being far superior to any other version because it is "the only Bible published without a copyright!" (as one recent publication stated). God just won't use a copyrighted Bible. That there may be valid reasons for copyrighting new translations (e.g., to recover the expense of translation and typesetting, which can run into millions of dollars, or to prevent corruption of the text in pirated editions) is rarely considered. But a far more important consideration is the fact that in the matter of being copyrighted, the KJV is not different from other versions--it was and is a copyrighted translation.


We would do well at this point to consider something of the origin, nature, and extent of the practice of copyrighting printed works. The 15th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (1977), in its excellent article on "Copyright Law," presents the following pertinent information:


Copyright in the modern sense was born in the late 15th century, the offspring of Gutenberg's invention of printing and of the expansion throughout Europe of the learning and religious ferment accompanying the Renaissance and Reformation. At about the time William Caxton established a printing press in Westminster in 1476, the city of Venice inaugurated a system of granting "privileges," or monopoly rights, to print certain books.


The practice of sovereign grants of exclusive publishing rights spread quickly to other countries and became a common trade practice during the 16th and 17th centuries. The printer or publisher seeking the monopoly was willing to pay for the privilege and to submit the work for official approval. For the ruler making the grant, the system was thus a source of revenue and, more important, an opportunity for exercising political or religious censorship.


For more than 200 years, this inchoate form of copyright was a matter involving tradesman and sovereign, and the individual author was rarely even an indirect beneficiary of the transaction. At the same time, the unauthorized reproduction of books, which had once been considered merely reprehensible, was gradually coming to be recognized as an illegal act.


In England, the system of royal licenses to individual printers was organized into a definite procedure with the restoration of Roman Catholicism under Mary I. In 1555, reaction to the widespread persecution of Protestants under the reinstated heresy laws led the crown to seek methods for enforcing tighter censorship. In 1556, Queen Mary chartered the Stationers' Company, giving the members of this guild of London printers monopoly rights in the books they published. All books were required to be submitted for official approval and to be entered on the company's register; both unauthorized printing and failure to register were punished by the Court of the Star Chamber.”  (Vol. V, p. 153)


Granting, yea, requiring the copyrighting of books was a firmly established practice in England long before the publication of the KJV in 1611. Therefore, it is no surprise that the title page of the New Testament of the original edition of the KJV reads, at the bottom, Cum Privilegio, Latin words which literally mean "with privilege" or "right;" that is, with the right of reproduction retained, or, in a word, "copyrighted." I confirmed this with my own eyes in November, 1976, at the library of the University of Chicago, which has a 1st edition KJV in its collection. The Oxford University Press in 1911 produced "an exact reprint in Roman type, page for page of the Authorized Version published in the year 1611." It naturally has precisely the same words on the New Testament title page (It was this Oxford 1911 reprint which was re-issued by Thomas Nelson in the 1980s). A personal inspection of the 2nd edition of the KJV (1613), in the collection of the Vick Memorial Library at Baptist Bible College, Springfield, Missouri, reveals the words Cum Privilegio on both the title page to the whole Bible and the title page to the New Testament. No doubt later editions read the same or similarly.


This copyright on the King James Version merely placed it in the mainstream with numerous earlier English versions, which were also copyrighted. William F. Moulton, in his singularly superb volume The History of the English Bible (5th edition, 1911), informs the reader that in 1537, "a second and a third edition of Coverdale's Bible was published by Nycolson, of Southwark [a section of London]; and here we at last read at the foot of the title-page, 'Sett forth with the Kynges most gracious license,' " (p. 99). Then, after noting that "In 1539 Taverner published his edition of the Bible," Moulton quotes the title page of that edition which reads in part, "Prynted at London in Flete strete at the synge of the sonne by John Byddell, for Thomas Barthlet. Cum privilegio ad imprimendum solum. M.D.XXXIX." (p. 133).


John Hutchinson relates concerning the Great Bible, completed in April of 1539, that the title page included the words, "Prynted by Rychard Grafton and Edward Whitchurch. Cum privilegio ad imprimendum solum" ("English Versions," The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, volume II, p. 949, 1937 revised edition).


Moulton also informs us, "On the 14th of November, 1539, [King] Henry [VIII] bestowed on [Thomas] Cromwell, for five years, the exclusive right to grant a license for the printing of the Bible in the English tongue" (p. 141), and that around 1542, "Anthony Marler, a haberdasher of London, who had borne the expenses of the earlier editions of the Great Bible, received from Henry a patent, conveying to him the exclusive right of printing the English Bible during four years" (p. 143).


Regarding the Geneva Bible of 1560, we are told by Moulton:


“The expense of the publication of the Genevan Bible was borne by the English community in that city. In 1561 [John] Bodley obtained from the Queen a patent for the exclusive printing of this version during seven years....In the course of Elizabeth's reign as many as seventy editions of the Genevan Bible and thirty of the New Testament, in all sizes from folio to 48mo, some in black letter and others in the ordinary character, were issued from the press. A few of these were printed abroad, but the large majority at home.”  (p. 166)


On the same subject, Hutchinson states, "Bodley had received the patent for its publication; and upon his asking for an extension of the patent for twelve years, the request was generously granted by Archbishop Parker and Grindly, bishop of London..." (ibid., p. 950; see also F. F. Bruce, The English Bible, 3rd edition, p. 91).


One printer, Richard Harrison, because he printed an edition of Cranmer's New Testament without license from Queen Elizabeth I to do so, was fined eight shillings (Moulton, p. 166). The Roman Catholic Rheims New Testament was also copyrighted when it appeared. Its title page read in part, "Printed at Rhemes by Ioan Fogny. 1582. Cum privilegio" (Moulton, p. 182).


An edition of the Bishops' Bible bearing the date 1585 in the Baptist Bible College collection lists the printer's name, Christopher Barker, and the fact that he was printer to the Queen's most excellent majesty, accompanied by the words "cum gratia et privilegio"--"with grace and privilege."


And, we note, though it is not an English Bible, that Erasmus' Greek text in its first edition of 1516 was published under copyright. An exact reproduction of the title page is to be found in Schaff's Companion to the Greek Testament and English Version, p. 532, where we clearly see "CVM PRIVILEGIO."


It is apparent that the only English Bibles which were not copyrighted upon publication were the very earliest ones, including the translations of Tyndale and Coverdale, when Bible publication in England was an illegal act. All translations made since legalization have been routinely and regularly copyrighted.


With such a history of copyrights and licenses from the monarch for the printing of earlier English Bible translations, it is no surprise to find that the KJV was also copyrighted. In fact, we would be not a little surprised if it had not been. Gustavus Paine in The Men Behind the King James Version discusses the printing and copyright of the KJV:


“There was no competition for the job of printing the new Bible. It went to Robert Barker, the royal printer who also published it. His father, Christopher Barker, had received from Queen Elizabeth the sole right to print English Bibles, books of common prayer, statutes, and proclamations. On the death of Christopher Barker in 1599 the queen had given to his son, Robert Barker, the office of Queen's Printer for life with the same monopoly. The Barkers and their heirs were to keep their right to publish the King James Bible for a hundred years. The heirs of Robert Barker went on printing [the KJV] as sole owners of the right for a hundred years.” pp. 134, 182


Henry Richard Tedder, in his biographical sketch of Robert Barker in The Compact Edition of the Dictionary of National Biography, gives further information about Robert Barker, his Bible copyright, and the printing of the King James Version:


“[T]he letters patent of Queen Elizabeth [I] of 8 Aug., 1589, grant[ed] him the reversion for life, after his father's death, of the office of Queen's printer, with right of printing English [B]ibles [emphasis added], books of common prayer, statutes, and proclamations....


The most important publication we owe to him was the first edition of the authorized version of the English [B]ible of 1611, sometimes known as King James, printed by virtue of the patent. Two issues, both handsome folios, were produced in the same year.”  (pp. 94/1127, 1128)

Tedder further relates how Robert Barker paid the printing costs for these two folio editions of the KJV:


"[he] paid for the amended or corrected translation of the [B]ible 3,500 [pounds]: by reason whereof the translated copy did of right belong to him and his assignes," and that in 1660, an anonymous author "ac-cused the Barkers of having kept in their possession the original manuscript of King James version" (p. 94/1128).


For more than 100 years the Barkers held the exclusive copyright to all English Bibles, as Tedder informs us:


"The [B]ible patent remained in the family from 1577 to 1709, or 132 years." (p. 94/1128)


But the copyright on the KJV did not expire after 100 years, when the Barker's copyright passed into other hands. Philip Schaff, in Companion to the Greek Testament and English Version, wrote of later matters respecting the copyright of the KJV. He noted that


"No English Bible was printed in America until after the Revolution, in 1782....Before that time the English copyright prevented the reprint" (p. 329, note 1).


F. F. Bruce confirmed this fact in The Canon of Scripture:


"Before the Declaration of Independence American Christians were debarred by British copyright regulations from printing the English Bible." (p. 111, note 24)


It is of particular interest to find that after the American Revolution had created a new nation, "an effort was made in its first Congress to restrict the printing of the [Bible] to licensed houses," but this effort "was cut short by the first amendment to the Constitution, and the book was thrown into the hands of the trade at large, with anything but a beneficial effect on its general integrity" (Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological,and Ecclesiastical Literature, edited by John M'Clintock and James Strong, vol. I, p. 563).


We must take note at this point of what is usually considered to be the first English Bible printed in America (though this is expressly denied by Isaiah Thomas in his 1810 volume, The History of Printing in America, pp. 103-4, 196, 401) because there is some confusion and misunderstanding surrounding it. I received a letter some time ago that claimed that the KJV was authorized and its publication licensed by the United States' Congress, as no other Bible has ever been. What was offered as proof of this assertion? A letter sent to Mr. Robert Aitken of Philadelphia concerning the English Bible he undertook to publish in 1782. That letter, from the Congress to Mr. Aitken read:


“RESOLVED, THAT the United States in Congress assembled highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion, as well as an instance of the progress of arts in this country, and being satisfied from the above report of his care and accuracy in the execution of the work, they recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States, and hereby authorize him to publish this Recommendation in the manner he shall think proper.”


Anyone who will give this letter a careful reading can readily see that it does not authorize or license the printing of the English Bible in any way, but only lauds Aitken for this undertaking and grants him permission to publish their letter of recommendation. There is not a word or hint of the authorizing of Bible printing.

It is evident, then, that the KJV was under worldwide copyright in all countries ruled by the British Empire from its first publishing in 1611 until 1782, or 171 years, longer by far than any of the English Bibles copyrighted and published from 1881 to the present. God apparently does use copyrighted Bibles sometimes, then, since the Bible of the Puritans--of Goodwin, Owen, Manton, Watson, Flavel, Brooks, Baxter, Bunyan, Poole and Henry--and of the Great Awakening--of Edwards, Whitefield, the Wesleys, Brainerd, and Dr. Gill--was a copyrighted Bible.


At the turn of the nineteenth century, the KJV remained under British copyright. Colin Clair tells us that:


 "the exclusive copyright in Bibles was then [i.e., 1804], as now, in the hands of the University Presses of Oxford and Cambridge and the Royal Printers, who, at the beginning of the [19th] century, were George Eyre and Andrew Strahan" (A History of Printing in Britain, p. 250; since Clair's book was published in 1966, it bears testimony to the persistence of Bible copyrights as late as that date, but I am getting ahead of myself).


Not only so, but the KJV was still under copyright in England much later in the century. In the article on the "Authorized Version," in M'Clintock and Strong's, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (1871 edition), it is stated as a then-present fact that:


"in England, for the sake of insuring accuracy as far as possible, the book [i.e., the Bible] can only be printed by the universities [i.e., Oxford and Cambridge], the king's printers, and persons by them licensed," (vol. I, p. 562).


Further, Schaff records, in a letter written by Bishop Wordsworth, May 25, 1881, a statement concerning who has the right in England to publish the KJV:


“I see it stated in some books on copyright, not, however, without some hesitation, that `the Sovereign, by a prerogative vested in the Crown, has the exclusive privilege of printing inter alia the Holy Bible for public use in the divine service of the Church” (Godson on Copyright, p. 432, 437, 441, 454), “and that the Queen's printer and the two ancient Universities [i.e., Oxford and Cambridge] now exercise the right by virtue of patents from the Crown....[T]he Queen's printer, who now, concurrently with the two Universities, enjoys the exclusive right of supplying all copies of the Bible (in the Authorized Version of 1611) for general use in the public service of the Church. (p. 335)


The Bible of Carey, Fuller, Rippon, McCheyne, the Bonars, Hudson Taylor, Livingstone, Ryle, Spurgeon, and Maclaren was a copyrighted Bible. What has a copyright got to do with whether God will use a translation - Apparently nothing at all.


So, as of 1881, the KJV had been under exclusive copyright in Great Britain and its colonies for 270 years. But there is more. To the present day the KJV is published in England under copyright. In private conversation, Sam Moore, president of Thomas Nelson Publishing of Nashville, Tennessee, the world's largest Bible publisher, informed Robert L. Sumner that there are currently four license holders with legal authority in England to publish the KJV: the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, as well as William Collins Sons & Co., Ltd, and Eyre & Spottiswoode. In illustration of this fact, let me note that my father owns two KJV New Testaments, both printed in England, with one published by Oxford and the other by Cambridge. Both were purchased new in 1971. Below the respective coat of arms of each university are the words "cum privilegio." These New Testaments were printed under copyright.


Jack Lewis, in his book, The English Bible: From KJV to NIV, gives further testimony on the matter:


“Those who objected to [the Revised Standard Version's] being copyrighted should know that all English Bibles, including the KJV and ASV, were copyrighted when first issued. The King James still enjoys copyright protection in Britain. It is only right that the purity of the text be protected and that the investment made by the publisher be safeguarded.” (p. 107)


As if the preceding were not enough to prove the case, let me quote from the back of the title page of an edition of the KJV Bible distributed by the Trinitarian Bible Society, and dated 1984:


“said Bible having been personally examined by me:


In terms of the Letters Patent granted by Her late Majesty Queen Victoria to Her Printers from Scotland, and the Instructions issued by Her said Majesty in Council, dated Eleventh July and Twenty-eighth December, Eighteen Hundred and Thirty-nine, I hereby License and Authorize WILLIAM COLLINS SONS AND COMPANY LIMITED, Glasgow, to Print and Publish, as by the Authority of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, but so far as regards the Text only, an Edition of the Holy Bible in the New Brevier type decimo-sexto size, as proposed in their Declaration dated the Twenty-sixth day of December Nineteen Hundred and Fifty-seven, the terms and conditions of the said Instructions being always and in all points fully complied with and observed by the said WILLIAM COLLINS SONS AND COMPANY LIMITED. Dated at Edinburgh the Second day of January, Nineteen Hundred and fifty-eight.

W. R. MILLIGAN Lord Advocate

All rights in respect of the Authorized (King James) Version of the Holy Bible are vested in the Crown in the United Kingdom and controlled by Royal Letters Patent. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted, in ny form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, or stored in any retrieval system of any nature without written permission.”


I could quote the same or similar words from several other copies of the KJV printed in Great Britain in the 1980s and 1990s, but I do not wish to weary the reader.


Possession of KJV copyright privileges by the University presses of Oxford and Cambridge has brought them massive amounts of revenue over the centuries and this revenue has been used in part to subsidize publishing of many of the expensive scholarly works, often with very low press runs, for which the University has become famous. And consistent with their holding the copyright on the KJV, when the English Revised Version (New Testament, 1881; whole Bible, 1884) and the New English Bible (New Testament, 1961; whole Bible, 1970) were published, the University presses were granted copyright privileges for these versions also. I have copyrighted versions of each, from the University presses, beside me as I write.


The facts are clear. The KJV is or has been throughout its existence a Bible under copyright with much money made by the copyright holders through its publication and sale. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the accuracy of the translation, just as the matter of a copyright on the NASB, NIV, or NKJB is wholly irrelevant to the issue of the accuracy of those versions. The accuracy of any English translation of the Bible depends not on whether it is copyrighted, or even if it agrees or disagrees with the translation we are used to, but rather, whether it accurately conveys in English the meaning of the inspired and inerrant Scriptures in the original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.


When the facts are so clear and wholly devoid of any dispute concerning the KJV and its copyright, it must be asked, "How did the false notion that the KJV was copyright-free gain such a wide dissemination? How did so many people become so misinformed on the matter?"


The cause is immediately evident. The fountainhead or source from which this gross error regarding Bible copyrights sprang is Peter Ruckman and his first misguided foray into the subject of Bible texts and versions, The Bible Babel, published in 1964. Though some had used the "no copyright" argument in denouncing the copyrighted Revised Standard Version when it appeared in 1952, this argument gained no wide currency in the early 1950s. It was only after Ruckman published his book that now one undiscerning writer, now another began to parrot his inaccurate claims concerning English Bible copyrights.


In his book, Ruckman addressed the subject in an inaccurate and self-contradictory manner, and the careless reading of this and subsequent books from his bilious pen have widely diffused this argument. Speaking of the KJV, he writes:


"The Book has no financial copyright. It had [note the past tense] the 'Crown copyright,' which only applies [note the present tense] to Bible Publishers in the United Kingdom, and this copyright does not demand money from anyone who wishes to quote, cite, reproduce, or print any passage from the A.V." (p. 15); and again, "The King James Bible is the only Bible in the world that anyone can reproduce, print, or copy without consulting anyone but God. All other 'bibles,' without exception, are copyrighted COMPETITORS whose motive was to destroy the A.V." (p. 16; I wonder how a translation can have a motive); and once more, "And although the A.V. has a 'Crown copyright' on it, this in no way affects the USE or the REPRODUCTION of the Book." (p. 17); and yet once again, "The trouble is that the AV is an honest translation. It has no copyright." (p. 19). He seems unsure whether the KJV was or is under Crown copyright, and he is certainly wrong about the freedom to publish the KJV in the United Kingdom. His readers ignored even his limited and inaccurate caveats regarding the copyright of the KJV and have simply reproduced the remark that the KJV alone of all earthly Bibles is copyright-free. It is appalling to see so many led so very far astray by one incredibly inaccurate writer. It is a veritable theater of the absurd.

No longer should this foolish argument concerning copyrights be employed. It is groundless, irrelevant, and totally untrue. The tragedy with most of the present Bible translation controversy is that it is based almost entirely on similarly groundless, irrelevant, and untrue arguments.