Monday, November 24, 2008

Core Questions about the Psalter

The decision by the US Catholic Bishops to approve the Revised Grail Psalter for text of Psalms at Mass pleased some and upset others. The main concern that led to the approval is the quality of the translations. They are said to be better but no published version yet exists.

As important as this is, another legal aspect of the chosen Psalms could end up being more significant. These Psalms are currency tied up in a publishing cartel that involves major profit-making companies who will be printing these for Catholic parishes at a major profit while prohibiting anyone else from quoting them or printing them. In the course of approving these Psalms, the Bishops have approved this publishing cartel arrangement as well, one that that could cost average Catholics many millions of dollars over time, and also entrench poor quality music in our parish.

The government grant of copyright protection belongs to The Grail in the UK, while the Conception Abbey in the US owns the copyright to whatever changes they made to prepare this for the new release. The most significant part here is that GIA Publications has been named as the worldwide agent for administering permissions.

The GIA is a for-profit music publisher that makes its revenue through music sales to US parishes, and which bears a great deal of responsibility for the sad state of music in the Catholic Church today. It would be naïve to believe that GIA will not favor itself in its administrative policies over the Psalms.

GIA, Conception, and The Grail, have been unwilling to give anything beyond perfunctory, legally-driven replies to inquiries on the exact nature of the arrangement, the financial exchanges that may have taken place, and the eventual policies on permissions and printing of the Psalms.

Normally these types of arrangements are the business of private enterprise. Consumers are free to buy or not to buy. But with the USCCB having approved these Psalms, it becomes the business of every Catholic in the United States and beyond to know more about what these arrangements are. Otherwise there could be dire consequences for non-GIA publishers, for independent composers, for every parish that is trying to save its resources by downloading liturgical materials, and also for the quality of music in our parishes.

The bottom line is that it amounts to a conflict of interest for the most powerful, for-profit Catholic publisher to be given a legal monopoly of ownership rights over the text of the Mass that belongs to all Catholics, and permitting that private company to charge fees for access to what has been the very foundation of Christian liturgical prayer since the Apostolic Age.

Two myths need to be exploded because they keep coming up. Some people think that the purpose of copyright is to protect the integrity of the texts. In fact, copyright does nothing to protect the integrity of the text. The people who use the text themselves have the strongest interest in maintaining its integrity. Millions of liturgical manuscripts are out of copyright protection and this has not compromised them. In fact, the reverse is true. Material printed before the Second Vatican Council is largely unprotected, including the 1962 Mass itself, and it has not been corrupted. For that matter, leaving a text to the public domain helps assures its integrity because it creates a thriving market for accuracy.

Second, some people think that the purpose of copyright is to make sure that people who use the text acknowledge its source. This is also nonsense. Source acknowledgeable can be guaranteed through source private-sector devices as the Creation Commons Attribution license, such as that invoked by the freely downloadable Psalms at No coercion is involved in this arrangement. No government monopolies are granted. And there is no problem.

Let us be clear that the sole purpose of putting a liturgical text under copyright protection with a private, for-profit company is rent extraction from those who use them. It is to get money, and exclude non-payers from the list of approved producers. Its purpose, its sole purpose, is to get you to pay that monopoly rights holder, which in this case is GIA, Conception, and The Grail.

Another point might be argued, that Conception and The Grail are entitled to earn money from its creations. If so, it is possible to sell the product of that work to an institution such as the US Bishops, with a one-time payment. It is not necessary that religious institution received a 100-year stream of income collected from the pockets of average Catholics. In any case, whatever happened to the idea of a monastery serving the Church?

The Bishops, GIA, Conception, and The Grail need to be required to be completely open and accurate and honest in answering the following questions:

1. What precisely are the legal terms under which GIA plans to give permission to people to print these Psalms? In the past, even some lowly bloggers have been beat up by The Grail for daring to quote Psalms without permission on their private blogs. They have charged up to 10% of proceeds for publishers. GIA will naturally have the incentive to charge high prices to keep others out of the market.

2. They have pledged “equitable and efficient” distribution policies but the only terms under which this could occur is to put the Psalm into Creative Commons so that they can be used for free. Will they consider this?
3. What precisely were the financial arrangements made between The Grail, Conception, and GIA to being about this cartel? What kind of revenue do they expect to earn over the coming years?

4. Was any money involved in the decision of the USCCB to embrace this translation of the Psalms? GIA is in a position to pay a high price to have its Psalms proclaimed as appropriate to the liturgy. Did they happen to offer the USCCB a donation to see this result come about? A clear, clear statement of “no” is the only morally satisfactory answer.

5. In what way does the arrangement as currently constitute avoid the sin of simony, which the Catholic Encyclopedia defines as: “a deliberate intention of buying or selling for a temporal price such things as are spiritual of annexed unto spirituals.” This, of course, needs to be qualified: there is nothing wrong with allocating scarce goods such as books and materials. But the translations themselves are not scarce goods. To charge for the use of the text itself would be an injustice. It is bad enough that ICEL maintains a copyright but they have at least granted free online rights; moreoever, ICEL is not a for-profit capitalist company. GIA is a different animal entirely.

Catholics in this country are financially strapped enough as it is, trying to keep their buildings in good repair and their schools running. They don’t need to be charged money for access to their own Mass texts.

All Catholics have a strong interest in getting answers to these questions now.

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