Q. How can a printing of the T’nach (Hebrew Bible) be copyright?
A. There are two aspects of copyright – the author’s and the publisher’s rights. In both cases, the basic Biblical rule is hassagat g’vul, the prohibition of encroaching upon another’s territory (Deut. 19:14).
It is obvious that the author’s work must be respected. But what about a printer or publisher who re-issues a classical text such as the T’nach? If the text comes with a new translation the translator has rights to his/her work, but what if it is a Hebrew-only edition?
The responsa of the Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moses Sofer, 1762-1839) state that a publisher or printer has to be protected in order to make publishing classical works economically feasible. This applies all the more if thought, planning and even creativity have gone into the design and typeface of the work.
One responsum deals with the Roedelheim prayer books edited by Rabbi Wolf Heidenheim, which became highly popular among Ashkenazi Jews.
Though the Chatam Sofer focusses on Heidenheim’s effort in editing and translating the liturgy, a Talmudic principle he cites has wider application and can guide us in relation to a redesigned edition of the T’nach.
The Talmud says, “One must keep fishing nets away from a fish which another fisherman is trying to catch” (Bava Batra 21b). Though the fish itself does not belong to any particular fisherman, the first fisherman has made the effort to stake out this fish, and others must respect his initiative and efforts.
Likewise, the Hebrew text of the Bible belongs to us all, but the publisher/printer who has made a special effort to produce an attractive edition must be respected and protected.