A Four Century Copyright: Free the King James!

You learn something new every day. Fellow author and forum colleague David Craig has remarked that, in the United Kingdom, the King James Bible (1611) is de facto under Crown Copyright, which means that if you are a British author, you actually need permission to quote the text in your commercial publications. Yes, really.

Good thing I’m a New Zealander, and as such able to quote the thing in a story any time I like. Hooray for Public Domain! But having an interest in both publishing issues, and in legal oddities (New Zealand law is very, very similar to English law in most things), I thought I would follow this particular rabbit hole to its conclusion.


It turns out the King James Bible isn’t conventionally copyrighted. The work actually predates the concept of copyright by nearly a century (copyright started with the Statute of Anne in 1710). What you’re actually seeing is a unique, and thoroughly antiquated, publishing monopoly that functions as a copyright by other means. We’ll discuss what that means for everyone later, but let’s first look at the legal situation, so far as I am able to understand it.

I. How the United Kingdom Got Here…

Currently in the United Kingdom, the King James Bible is able to be printed by the Queen’s Printer (Cambridge University Press), Cambridge University Press in their capacity as a University Press, and Oxford University Press. In Scotland, the rights are delegated to the Scottish Bible Board. How long will this state of affairs last?

As per Wikipedia, we’ve got the Copyright Act 1775, cl 53:

An Act for enabling the Two Universities in England, the Four Universities in Scotland, and the several colleges of Eton, Westminster, and Winchester to hold in Perpetuity their Copy Right in Books given to or bequeathed to the said Universities and Colleges for the advancement of useful learning and other purposes of education…

This Perpetual Copyright was then, however, repealed under the Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1988, s13(1):

The rights conferred on universities and colleges by the Copyright Act 1775 shall continue to subsist until the end of the period of 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the new copyright provisions come into force and shall then expire.

This means the Perpetual Copyright referred to in the 1775 Act expires on 1st January, 2039 (fifty years after the 1988 Act).

But this rather begs the question… is the King James Bible one of the works covered in the 1775 Act? There seems to be some online confusion about this. The Wikipedia article cited above suggests that the Act does indeed cover the King James.

Alas, by my reading, that first Wikipedia article is actually misleading at best. Yes, Cambridge University Press hold the rights… but they hold the rights in two ways. The situation is detailed here.

The first way is via traditional Charter. Cambridge University Press, along with Oxford University Press, are a Privileged Press, with the unique right to publish the King James. Is this a right covered by the 1775 Act? I am not going to definitively claim it is, but if this is indeed the case, those privileges will expire on 1st January, 2039.

The second way is via the status of Queen’s Printer. Cambridge University Press obtained this status in 1990, when they bought the old holders, Eyre & Spottiswoode.

As per the other Wikipedia article, to which I have just linked, the Queen’s Printer gets the rights to the King James Bible from Royal Letters Patent. That means you’re dealing with the Royal Prerogative, not with Statute Law. What does the 1988 Act say about that?

Oh dear:


Nothing in this Part affects—

any right or privilege of the Crown subsisting otherwise than under an enactment;

So the 1988 Act means the texts protected by the 1775 Act become Public Domain on 1st January, 2039. But the Queen’s Printer’s monopoly, created under Royal Prerogative, is not under an enactment, and so is not affected by the 1988 Act.

If the Charter privileges of the University Presses are covered by the 1775 Act, my reading of the situation is that Oxford University Press will lose its Perpetual Copyright in 2039. Cambridge University Press will continue to enjoy its privileged status after 2039, so long as it remains the Queen’s Printer. Of course, if these Charter privileges are outside the 1775 Act, the status quo shall continue after 2039 anyway.

In short, my reading is that the King James Bible isn’t becoming Public Domain in the United Kingdom in 2039. In fact, the situation might actually become more monopolistic, since the only organisation (Oxford University Press) that is not the Queen’s Printer might lose its rights to the work. The King James Bible will therefore be stuck in this de facto Crown Copyright situation until the Heat Death of the Universe. Or until the British Parliament does something. Whichever comes first.

II. What is the Status Quo?

Dealing with the King James rather depends on who you are, and where you are:

  • Are you Oxford University Press? If so, you get to publish the King James Bible any time you like.
  • Are you Cambridge University Press? If so, you get to publish the King James Bible any time you like. You can also authorise or licence anyone else to do so.
  • Are you outside the United Kingdom? If so, the King James Bible is public domain. Quote it, print it, adapt it any time you like.
  • Are you anyone else in England, Wales, or Northern Ireland? Cambridge University Press will permit you to publish up to five hundred verses for non-commercial purposes. If you’re wanting to quote the King James in a commercial publication, you need their written permission.
  • Are you in Scotland? The Scottish Bible Board has the same delegated authority over the King James as the Queen’s Printer does in the rest of the United Kingdom. They’ve given a licence to Collins (now HarperCollins) since 1841, and they’ve given licences to others over the years too. They’re hard to find online contact details for, however. I’d almost suggest trying Cambridge University Press, and asking for help in getting hold of them.

Lest one think that this is just a quaint relic from an older era, this actually became a real issue in 2011:

In honor of the KJV’s 400th anniversary, London’s newly reconstituted Globe Theater—Shakespeare’s old home stage—scheduled a series of actors to recite the entire King James Bible from the stage between Palm Sunday and Easter of 2011. But a few days before the presentation, the director received a bill for payment of a substantial royalty fee for the privilege of reading it publicly. The British Crown actually owns the copyright to the King James Bible, which has been renewed upon the accession of each succeeding monarch since King James himself. So the queen, through the auspices of Cambridge University Press, was sending him a bill, according to BBC Music Magazine.

It’s enough to make writers and creators steer clear of quoting the King James Bible altogether, which is a crying shame.

(The article is also slightly wrong on the mechanics. The Crown Copyright doesn’t get renewed. The Letters Patent – giving the Queen’s Printer its authority to print the King James – gets renewed. The Queen wasn’t sending a bill. Cambridge University Press, as a royally-empowered monopoly, was sending a bill. But I digress. The important thing is that a bill was sent at all).

III. Put It In The Public Domain Now!

The King James Bible is the single most important text in the history of the English language, or at least Modern English. It’s rivalled only by the works of William Shakespeare… and it’s 409 years old. The men who created it are centuries dead. Why on earth is it still under (de facto) copyright in the United Kingdom?

We know the answer, of course. It’s a throwback to the era when control and distribution of authorised religious texts was an integral part of the state’s activities, and because it’s such an obscure issue, no-one has bothered changing it. But this state of affairs needs changed. The King James Bible is more than a religious text. It’s part of our shared cultural heritage as users of the English language.

A director should not be billed for reciting this work aloud, any more than they should be billed for reciting Shakespeare or Beowulf. Writers within the borders of the United Kingdom should not have to jump through hoops of permission, just to quote it – and one wonders how many have resorted to using other (and less stylistically elegant) translations, just to get around this problem. I can quote it in my own work, commercial or otherwise, simply because I live in a country where the book is Public Domain. After 409 years, it’s about time British writers had the same opportunity, without this archaic dead hand hovering over them.


And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

3 thoughts on “A Four Century Copyright: Free the King James!

  1. No, it shouldn’t lose its Crown copyright. Public domain in the rest of the world is enough.

    Ecclesiastes 8:4
    “Where the word of a king is, there is power: and who may say unto him, What doest thou?”


    • Jesus overturned those making money in the temple and making God’s house a den of theives. How is billing someone reciting God’s scriptures any different? Woe to you that make God’s scriptures a merchendising tool!


  2. Jesus said freely I have received and freely I give had not to the words of the Lord lest you be reproved and found a liar who is the author well in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God the same was in the beginning with God in the word became flesh and dwelt among us only the Holy Spirit has the right of copy praise his Holy name The name above every name say that it’s a name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father who is blessed forever The gift of God is not a religion but a person fear not for I have overcome the world and what is it that overcomes the world even our faith anything that is not a faith is sin by what law by the law of faith


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