Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Misuse of Power and Copyright

It seems to me that the use of power can seem quite satisfying at times, even therapeutic, in a twisted sort of way. Someone who exercises power often says, "I applied solution x to problem a." Little thought is usually given to whether or not such power trips actually work. Short-term effects may be noticed; but long-term damage may be ignored.

I'll use myself as an example. When I was first out of college, I would write up guidelines and policies for the musicians to follow. I wanted to manage every iota of the music program. It never worked; people just ignored me. It frustrated me. After a number of years went by, however, and a little more maturity set in, I was left pondering the question, "What are you going to do about it?" What are you going to do? Threaten to fire volunteers? Hardly. My power trips only served to create heartache.

This same fascination with power seems to be showing itself in a number of conversations I have been involved in on the recent issue of whether or not ICEL should be copyrighting its texts. "The good guys are in charge now, so this is good," one person said to me. But what they forget is that we never know who will be in charge in twenty years. Whoever it is will be able to wield the same power the good guys wielded, and they might not use it in ways that we think are "good." Do not be satisfied by saying that you think it is impossible; these things boomerang in incredibly unpredictable ways.

Think about it: as long as these ridiculous copyright rules are in effect, the balance of power in the composing realm remains top-heavy, and musicians who write settings of the various texts are at the mercy of the various movers and shakers involved in the process. On what basis will decisions be made? (I'm particularly curious to know on what basis the bishops' conference approves or disapproves musical settings.) Not even Palestrina himself, in the aftermath of the puritanical tirades of the fathers of the Council of Trent, faced such bureaucracy.

It is said that copyright protects the income of the composer. This is rubbish. The fact is that the more freely available something is, the more copies sell. When books are posted online for free at musicasacra.com, the sales of the hard copies spike. Nevertheless, it is my experience that many influential people in Catholic circles are always quick to get on the bandwagon of anything that ostensibly protects someone's right to an income. But again, the question is, Does it work?

In truth, America's copyright laws today are used more often to restrict the flow of information than for any other purpose. They help to create a kind of cartel. I know of a composer who wrote a jazzy arrangement of a popular hymn tune. The problem is that the original tune is still under copyright, and the family will not allow the arrangement to be published because they find it objectionable. This is nothing more and nothing less than censorship.

The whole point is that we have to be careful what we wish for. If the "conservatives" misuse power now, they better be prepared to have the same abuse heaped upon them at a later time when they're not in charge.

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