Monday, July 13, 2009

Who owns Ave Maria?

One of the most challenging parts of Caritas in Veritate, the social encyclical by Benedict XVI, concerns the passage in section 22. "On the part of rich countries there is excessive zeal for protecting knowledge through an unduly rigid assertion of the right to intellectual property, especially in the field of health care."

The background here concerns the pharmaceutical industry's demand for egregious rents from its drugs distributed in the third world, but the point applies more broadly. Some goods with the capacity for infinite reproducibility can be owned both privately and also be part of the commons. The Pope is urging a rethinking of attempts, through legislation, to make goods with universal value the private possession of a few.

The same rethinking is needed as regards the liturgy and its embedded music. Should it be made the private possession of the few or be part of the commons of civilization itself? The words and the music possess that divine trait of infinite reproducibility, and are made scarce only by artificial means of copyright legislation.

In an unprecedented step in the sweep of Christian history, the text of the Catholic liturgy have been made proprietary through these very means, which has not only harmed evangelistic efforts in the digital age; it has also netted no small sum to the rights holders themselves who are pleased to be able to charge royalties for printing and distributing at the expense of Catholics in the pews.

Another related problem concerns profit-making publishers themselves and their tendency to privatize the public domain through subtle means. For many years, private publishers have been trying to lead the faithful into believing that many of the hymns, chants, and songs, they are publishing are proprietarily held when in fact they are long in the public domain.

The best way to understand how this works is to consider a basic hymn of the faith: the Gregorian antiphon Ave Maria. I'm looking now at the Heritage Missal put out by the Oregon Catholic Press, and, in particular, at hymn number 312. It is Ave Maria, a hymn which combines scripture with medieval elaboration. The text at the bottom says the following:

Part one text: Luke 1:28; 42; part two text: 16th century
English text © 1995, Paul Ford. Published by OCP. All rights reserved.

Now, it is clear from this notice that it would be illegal to photocopy this page and hand it out to anyone. There is every indication that this chant is wholly owned in every way by the OCP, "all rights reserved." Is it true? In part. The English text itself is indeed written by Paul Ford, but Ford is not really a proprietary sort of guy. He would be very pleased to have this distributed widely. He is not the kind of person who would say: if you distribute my translation, you had better fork over the big bucks. I'm willing to speculate that OCP has never asked Ford if he would like to make his text part of the commons.

What about the Latin text? Well, the second part does not date from the 16th century. That is an outright falsehood. The easily accessible Catholic Encyclopedia points out that the text was already common by the Council of Trent and probably dates to the 11th century or certainly the 12th century. It is more ancient, then, than OCP suggests.

As for the music, it is long ago in the public domain and part of the commons of Catholic life. But would the casual singer know this from looking at this page? I don't think so. The whole of the notice seems to be designed to give the opposite impression, namely that the song is as much copyrighted as "Shepherd Me, O God."

Even so, it remains illegal to photocopy and distribute this page—I can't even post an image of it without fear of some awful fate—because the publisher has made sure that at least something on the page is copyrighted, in this case the English text underneath the Latin.

We are back to the problem mentioned by Benedict: an "excessive zeal for protecting knowledge." This is the very opposite of the impulse that is at the core of Christianity, which is all about spreading the good news and evangelizing for the faith.

Is it any wonder that Catholic music has become so diffuse and lacking in that universal quality that Pope Pius X said is a feature of Catholic music? This whole system needs to be challenged at a fundamental level. Catholic chants and Catholic liturgy must again become part of the commons of the faith.

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