Monday, June 08, 2009

The Church's Ritual Texts Must Be Freed

The growing trend in scholarly publishing, particularly in the natural sciences and health, is to eschew exclusive copyright protection in favor of a model that permits widespread and instantaneous publication. This tend has the main players in the industry very unhappy because their business model depends heavily on owning a monopoly on the texts and dispersing them based on a fee-based system.

The fees that the big players charge are far above any standard pricing formula simply because they are the sole owners of the text from a legal standpoint. This system is at the breaking point for two reasons: authors don't like having their work buried, and the community of researchers needs to have the broadest possible access to the texts. As a result, the younger and more innovative writers and researchers are publishing through different and more innovative forms.

The details of this remarkable upheaval in scholarly publishing can be read in publications such as the Chronicle of Higher Education and many other online resources. It is but one signal of the new consciousness that has dawn on people in publishing and writing in the digital age, when the reality of the infinite reproducibility of text and images has become more clearly in focus.

In times past, it was easy to become confused over what precisely constituted the good in question when it came to a text. Was it the physical book itself or the matter it in that was being purchased? There was no need to ask that question until it became possible for the physical properties of a book to be separated in distribution from its actual content, and until it became possible for nearly everyone to enter into the once-coveted position of being a publisher. Today the contents of any book or journal can be transmitted instantly and reproduced infinitely and it is also possible for any living person to become a publisher with a few clicks of the mouse.

You might ask what this has to do with the ritual texts of the Church. Well, the problem is that the exact same issues confront the Catholic Church today. Its ritual texts continue to be locked in a copyright prison, and I'm not just talking about the layout or the graphics or physical books themselves. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) is charged with preparing new English translations of the Missale Romanum and has every intention of locking the texts themselves behind a copyright wall so that ICEL alone will be in a position to determine who can use the texts and under what conditions, when their use will be free and when they will charge for them.

The same is true of the Revised Grail Psalter that has been approved for use in the Mass. The rights to the texts will be administered by a for-profit company, the GIA, that itself will be the primary publisher/distributor of the Psalms, thus setting up a conflict of interest and the potential for a terrible legal thicket for composers and publishers.

Now compare the movement in scholarly/scientific circles with the situation of Catholic ritual texts. The scientists say that it is preposterous to limit access because lives are at stake. In many ways, the progress of science depends upon community-base efforts. The digital age permits global cooperation in knowledge seeking, and these tools should be employed for the good of humanity, and certainly the interests of a handful of old-line publishers should not be allowed to stand in the way of progress.

If this is true for science, how much more it is true for the ritual texts of the Catholic Church? The English-speaking sector of the Catholic Church is global and the numbers of laypeople, monks and nuns, composers, musicians, priests, and would-be small publishers add up to the many millions. They are all affected when an official text of the Church is made the private and legally-enforced domain of a single institution. The development of the liturgy is artificial constrained by monopolistic privilege for a few. We might say that people are being denied their essential rights as Catholics to freely use the indulgenced texts for our faith for purposes of public prayer. The world has moved on but the ritual texts of the Church are stucked back in some primitive proprietary state as if it were still in the 1920s.

To be sure, there has been some progress. Two things I will mention in particular. ICEL has agreed to permit its texts to be used for free within the context of digital media. This way you can post the Mass text or the Divine Office to your blog and not face legal reprisal from an arm of the Catholic Church. If this doesn't seem like much progress to you, consider that last year at this time, ICEL was still enforcing its old standards, pretending as if it were doing something good for the world by hammering people for daring to say "Lord, Have Mercy" on their Facebook accounts. In this sense, this is progress indeed.

The same is true for the Revised Grail Psalms. GIA has announced that it will permit the Psalms to be posted at no charge provided no more than one full Psalm is available at a single download link, and all rights are overtly named etc. etc. This might also sound rather restrictive but for GIA, a private publisher whose copyrights are its very lifeblood, this is a big step, and we should not fail to recognize it as such.

But can you see what is happening here? The exclusive arrangements are being liberalized provided that the material is given away for free, but the instant you step into the printed media for which money has to change hands in order for the good to be acquired, both ICEL and Grail are demanding some tribute be paid. This remains a serious problem. It says to composers that they are free to post but not free to attempt to sell their works without paying some unspecified royalty to GIA and ICEL. What that amount is in particular remains the sole judgment of the monopolist institution that possesses the state-enforced exclusive to the text.

What are the consequences of this restrictive policy in the digital age? People will continue to circulate compositions and books and publications in secret, fearing lawsuits and crackdown. Another tendency will be to eschew the use of the texts themselves. Here is an example. The monks of Our Lady of Spring Bank in Sparta, Wisconsin, have decided to post and publish the first large update to the Cistercian Psalter since 1948 – a massive job and one that absolutely requires open source texts. The Abbey obviously wants to avoid having to pay some private publisher for the right to print their own Psalter!

So instead of using the GIA's Revised Grail, it will go another path and use the Book of Common Prayer. Here is what a monk explains: "Why, you may ask, are Roman Catholic monks using an Anglican psalter? …[T]hose of you who have followed the discussion around the new Grail Psalter at The New Liturgical Movement and other sites know that there is an issue of copyright. The BCP psalms are in the public domain and can be downloaded, for free, from any number of sites."

So there you have it. The copyrighting and royalty-charging business for ritual texts is backfiring and will continue to do so. Far from protecting the integrity of those texts, it is causing people to turn to untaxed sources and eschew the official texts. This is wholly understandable. At the same time, it is rather heartbreaking for those who have worked so hard for so long—for example, the monks at Conception Abbey—on composing excellent texts only to have them drop down the black hole of intellectual property. That is exactly what is happening.

It is not too late for Grail, and it is certainly not to late for the forthcoming texts from ICEL. They need to be made open access. There is no other solution consistent with justice, sound economics, and, I would argue, even morality. No Church should lock its liturgy behind national laws that grant a special right to profit only to a few well established institutions. Dramatic change is needed, and soon.

If the scientists see a need for change, in the interest of serving humanity, surely the Church can see the need for change in the interest of serving the Owner of all things.