We can copy and publish from any edition of the Bible, right? The Bible is in the public domain, right? After all, it’s message belongs to all of us and is very old. What about Les Miserables? Victor Hugo died over 125 years ago. We couldn’t possibly be infringing copyright if we copy excerpts from these sources into a work we publish, could we?
In analyzing client’s manuscripts, looking for infringements and plagiarisms, I sometimes find evidence of the misconception that because the substance of a work is old, the copyright has expired.
In many cases the “old” works these misinformed clients have copied from turn out to be translations—derivatives of the original work. A derivative is a work based on or derived from one or more already existing works. Also known as a “new version,” a derivative work is copyrightable if it includes what copyright law calls an “original work of authorship.” In most instances, a translation contains enough originality to be considered a work worthy of copyright protection. The books of the Bible were not originally written in English. We know that. So any English translation must be a derivative according to US Copyright Law. For more information on derivatives, check out the U S Copyright Office’s Circular #14
In the case of Les Miserables, if you are using Julie Rose’s translation, which was published in 2008 (and which by the way has gotten rave reviews) you would have to request permission to take an excerpt from it and to publish your work containing the excerpt. You would need to acquire the right to republish the excerpt of this new derivative work, this new translation of Les Miserables, from the copyright holder Random House.
Many translations of the Bible are copyrighted and their copyright holders have certain limitations on the number of verses you can copy without acquiring permission. Some are more lenient than others with allowances for freely copying extensively. See the Bible Gateway site for the details on using passages from the New King JamesVersion. Also see the Bible Gateway site for the more stringent limitations on copying set out by The Good News Bible.
Of course you want to acknowledge and properly credit your translation sources. Often, when granting permission, the administrator for rights will tell you how they want their work credited. For a good example of crediting various Bible excerpts see here.
Before copying and publishing excerpts from translations, whether on the Internet or in print media, it’s a good idea to go to the derivative work’s copyright page and see exactly when the translation was published. Then you should determine if permission is needed for the kind of use you mean to employ.
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