Sunday, April 19, 2009

What To Do About Tethered Texts

I have some updates on the continuing issue of copyrighted ritual texts. Sadly, I can’t give any direct quotations or sources on any of this. All parties have requested anonymity and confidentiality, which strikes me as ridiculously telling.

We are talking about the texts of the Mass here, which everyone seems to agree are and should be the common property of the whole Church. Tell someone in the Anglican Church about the copyright controversies in the Catholic Church and he will be baffled. What possible controversy could be involved here? The Book of Common Prayer belongs to everyone and everyone is encouraged to publish the texts, set the texts, post the texts, and work towards ever better and greater presentations of the texts. No disaster has befallen them as a result. On the contrary, publishers thrive and the text is everywhere and beloved.

In the Catholic Church in the English-speaking world, in contrast, the publishers and agencies in charge of texts have used national laws to restrict them and charge for the right to print them and record them, which has put a serious crimp on musical composition and publishing, effectively creating profitable monopolies for a few.

These monopolies are enforced by civil penalties. Under some circumstances, they might be enforced by criminal penalties.

And who pays the bill in the end? It is all of us in the pews. We pay higher prices than we ought to for our liturgical materials, and the margins in publishing are made exorbitantly thinner because publishers have to shell out to all the rights owners. It’s so bad these days that you can’t print or sing “Lord, Have Mercy” without tossing some change into the coffers of the big publishers.

Just to be clear: there is nothing wrong with paying for liturgical materials. There is nothing unconventional about paying fees for reprinting original music still under copyright. What is notable and unseemly, and morally dubious in the extreme, is the idea that the texts themselves would be owned privately and the right to use them in creative publishing projects would available only by being forced to pay for them.

The issue has reached a crisis point because of the advent of digital media. For the first time in human history, the Mass texts can achieve universal distribution and anyone can be involved in assisting the faith in presenting ever more and better musical settings, with better quality books at an ever grater range of prices and qualities for everyone.

Now, in what seems to be a new policy, ICEL has been kind enough to permit its texts to be posted online with no charge. This is an exception made for “non-commercial distribution.” That’s fine, and more than GIA is likely to allow with its upcoming Psalm monopoly, about which more in a bit. The important point is that technology is melting away this strict distinction between commercial and non-commercial.

Let’s say you make a series of Mass booklets using ICEL texts and assemble these in a 50-page download packet. So far, so good. But let’s say that not everyone has a printer that can print front and back or access to a copy machine that adds a saddle stitch. These days, with one click, you can have the site print and bind it for you and mail it—provided the user covers the direct costs. Is that now commercial? Why is it more commercial than if the user printed it and paid someone else to print and bind it? And what if the costs include upload time and serve expenses? What if the profits, if there are any, are donated to charity? At what point does this cease to be free distribution and become a forbidden “commercial exchange?”

Again, when you think about all this, remember that we are not talking about Harry Potter books or the latest popular novel or a new composition. We are speaking of some institution out there that claims to possess some proprietary ownership over the texts of the Mass itself, and charge not for a book or a recording only but merely for the legal right to use this text which can be reproduced infinitely without diminishing the value of the original. In other words, we are speaking about a tax on evangelization here.

The problem here is of course ICEL, which asserts this right, with the permission of the USCCB. When you start talking to people at ICEL about this subject, they quickly point out that they don’t like this policy anymore than you and I do. It is not something that they necessarily favor or support. They are only there to enforce it on behalf of their bosses at the USCCB, which insists on royalties etc. A contact with the USCCB then sends you to the Committee on Divine Worship, and from there I get lost.

If there is one particular person or group who is solely responsible for hammering out this copyright/royalty policy and maintaining it against widespread opposition, I’ve yet to find it/him. I would appreciate any information on this point. Surely the decision maker could be shown the unreasonableness of this policy.

Now to the matter of the Grail Psalms that have been approved by the USCCB for Mass. The administrator of the rights here is currently Harper/Collins in the UK and GIA in the United States. Unlike ICEL, which has some quasi-official liturgical standing, these are private, for-profit companies that have no institutional connection to the Catholic Church in any form of which I am aware.

And yet, they will soon own the legal monopoly on the Psalms of David that we sing at Mass, and be in a position to charge whatever royalties they deem fair or just or suitable. Never mind that these texts have been translated thousands of times in the course of 500 years and there isn't really any newly copyrightable material here. That doesn't seem to matter. We are all waiting to find out precisely what these fees will be, but GIA is not saying. They say they are still thinking about this—thinking about what they will charge you to sing them and for others to publish them.

No private company should be put in this position. The conflict of interest is undeniable and incompatible with justice. It would be ridiculous enough if MacDonalds, for example, were given the legal monopoly on hamburgers and could charge Burger King any amount for the right to make them as well. But keep in mind that matters become much more serious when it comes to liturgy, the common property of us all.

We’ve heard for generations that liturgy is the “work of the people”; now we are finding out the liturgy is the work of monopolistic, profit-driven corporations that will dole it out on their own terms and charge us for the privilege.

What I find most striking is what has come to my attention lately on this subject, namely that some of these monopolists say that charging royalties on the texts is made necessary because they have to pay royalties to ICEL. They regard their current fees as nothing but compensatory and thereby potentially dispensable. If ICEL would give up its state-enforced legal monopoly on the texts, they too would relent and give all the texts away for commercial or non-commercial use.

Now, if this is true, and perhaps this is just an excuse but let’s take them at their word, all of this amazing mess could be solved by a very simple action: ICEL should free the texts. In other words, the Catholic Mass text should be treated precisely as the Book of Common Prayer is treated, as the common property of all the faithful. If ICEL took this step, perhaps all the rest of the publishers and this complex and profiteering machine would collapse and we would enter into a world of free production and competition and evangelization.

Then the question remains: to whom should the faithful petition to make this dream a reality?

(If readers are interested in this topic, I go into much greater detail in my book Sing Like a Catholic.)

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