Tuesday, August 05, 2008

ICEL, copyright, and the core of the problem

The letter from Cardinal Arinze posted here presents the framework for the new Mass texts. It specifies that the purpose is, in part, to "facilitate the devising of musical settings for the parts of the Mass." It further specifies that the text is under copyright and so it is subject to "all pertinent copyright legislation in civil law" in accordance with the statutes of ICEL.

Many composers might at first feel a sense of excitement here that the Church is asking for their creative contributions. But then they look at the ICEL rules that Cardinal Arinze rightly says are enforced by the state. It turns out that ICEL demands a tax--this is the right word since the payments rely on coercion--be paid for any settings that are posted for more than one-time use. The taxes go higher if the music finds a market.

There are only a few publishers prepared to pay this tax, understand the accounting rules, and can bear the costs associated with compliance. We need to appreciate just how afraid of these rules that most musicians really are. They will compose and let these pieces sit on their harddrives rather than post them. That leaves only the established music publishers in a position to distribute appropriate musical settings.

So we see here that Cardinal Arinze's two principles are at odds with each other: it is not possible to facilitate widespread and faithful musical settings of these texts under ICEL's current copyright/"royality" rules. There is a simple workaround: make these texts open source. They can use Creative Commons or even conventional copyright while eliminating the tax on publishing with broad permissions granted de facto. This is how the ordo of service for every other denomination handles matters, so far as I know. Changes are essential if the monopolistic forces currently impeding progress are not addressed. The status quo is not suitable.

Right now, ICEL's rules say nothing about digital publication or online distribution, almost as if they are made to apply to a world that disappeared ten years ago. There is an opportunity right now for ICEL to issue a clarification. If that clarification does not assist in permitting widespread creation and distribution of new musical settings, there is a case for some sort of intervention.

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