Saturday, December 20, 2008

Grail Psalms: A Path Forward

From the instant that the USCCB announced that the Revised Grail Psalter would become the new standard for Psalms in the ordinary form of the Mass, musicians in the UK privately issued warnings along the lines of “welcome to our Hell.”

The problem is not the translations of the Psalms, which are said to be an improvement over what is in use today in the U.S. The problem has to do with the law, copyright, permissions, expenses, enforcement—and the problems are so pervasive in the UK that one of the least spoken about aspects of liturgical life in the UK is the proliferation of samizdat Psalms.

What are samizdat Psalms? These are Psalm settings written by composers attached to parishes and cathedrals, by composers and directors who are required to use the Grail text but cannot bear to sing the musical settings published by the mainstream publishers. They write their own, but understandably fail to jump through the copyright hoops and pay the exorbitant fees associated with the texts themselves. So they are copied, handed out, kept under wraps, delivered from parish to parish in brown envelopes, and spoken about in hushed tones. It’s like a sector of an underground Church.

The same situation could happen in the U.S. when the Revised Grail becomes official here too. The Psalm that are currently made available online will be forced down. The settings made available by independent composers will have to go underground. The job of setting the Psalms to music will fall to the “Big Three” music publishers who provide the mainstream fare today. Incredibly, one of those publishers, a for-profit company, has actually been named as the literary agent to decide the terms and conditions under which people can publish the Psalms.

What this means is that access to the Psalms of David, the very core of Catholic hymnody and the basis of Christian music since the early Church, will be wholly subject to the decision making of a private company working in league with the civic authority that enforces copyright with fines and jail. It will be courts, judges, lawyers, and a profit-driven firm—not the Church and not Catholics—who will be in charge of the terms under which the Psalms that you will be required to sing can be distributed.

How did this incredible situation come to be? It begins in the early 1960s, when a group of lay women that made up a group called The Grail (of England) came forward with Psalms for Catholic use in the vernacular. It was a radical project at the time since it happened before the Mass was reformed. But it was a good entrepreneurial choice since the demand for them emerged in 1969 with the new Mass. They have been in use in the UK.

Now to the ownership question. The Grail used a copyright convention at the time to retain exclusive rights to them, and they handed them over to the publishing giant HarperCollins to manage the rights. In those days, not much thought was put into the problems of treating the Mass as the “intellectual property” of a private entity. Everyone was dependent on the mainstream publishers. There was no means of digital delivery. Even photocopies were cumbersome. But all that began to change in the years ahead. Today, an infinite number of versions of any text can be delivered without degrading the integrity of the original. For a Church devoted to bringing its faith to as many as possible and a Church with a special mission to the poor, digital delivery and on-demand printing is a dream.

But the dream could not be so long as copyright conventions were obeyed. On the contrary, access to The Grail took the same route as many short-sighted private lobbying arms in the private sector. They regarded any digital copying or on-demand publishing as a mortal threat to their financial well being. Instead of celebrating the spreading of the Gospel, they treated the proliferation of sacred texts as “piracy.” This will strike anyone as a grave perversion until you consider this background and the grave choice of the Grail to copyright their works and put a corporate giant in charge.

In the US, the revision that has been approved by the USCCB was done by Conception Abbey. Again, everyone says that the revision is excellent. But they too turned to literary agents rather than using their sense of the faith to determine how to treat issues of intellectual property. The literary agents cobbled together a deal with another corporate giant, GIA, to become the gatekeeper to the Psalms. Under the law, the original Grail is still held in England, but the changes to the text can be copyrighted separately as “new matter.”

Nothing stands in the way of the GIA charging exorbitant fees for the printing of these Psalms. Nothing stands in the way of a decision to restrict access to themselves and others with whom they make special deals. If the managers of the rights see fit to treat everyone else as a pirate, they are free to unleash lawyers, courts, and judges—the entirely coercive apparatus of the state in defense of their private ownership of the Psalms that are part of Mass.

Nor is it hyperbole to speak of jails and prisons: every few weeks, the news reports carries announcements of judges sentencing people to months and years in prison for doing what musicians will be forbidden from doing in our future.

Obviously, this is a disgusting problem, one that should have nothing to do with the faith, the Mass, and the Psalms. What can be done? The answer is obvious and urgent. The Conception Abbey should immediately pull out of their deal with GIA. It should cut all ties with the literary agent who negotiated this deal. It should put their Psalms into a Creative Commons license to prevent anyone from copyrighting their text. This is a way of giving it to the whole Church and the world.

Conception of course is only responsible for new matter. What about the Grail itself? It is also critically important that this institution immediately end all connection with HarperCollins. It too should remove all its copyright claims to the text. It can put them into public domain as a free gift to the Church and the world. Only fear and greed stand in the way of this proper choice.

I know that this proposal will upset many plans. There is a lot of money at stake, and I would venture a reasonable guess that lots of money has been passed around to make the USCCB-GIA-Conception-Grail-Harper deal come together. They expect huge revenue in the years ahead, all of which comes out of the pockets of worshipping Catholics. Even so, there is a never a bad time to do what is right. Morality and justice should prevail. The Psalms must be set free for the whole Church.