Thursday, December 03, 2009

Bonfire of the Missalettes

Let's say you buy a book at Borders. Inside the front cover it says: "The use of this book is licensed to the purchaser for 2009 only, after which date this book must be destroyed. If you want to read the book in 2010, you must buy another copy of the same."

Say what? I think you might seriously question whether the bookstore or the publisher can or should make such demands, morally or legally or practically. It seems crazy. I mean, you paid for the book. It is yours. Whose business is it whether you read the book in December of one year rather than January of the next year?

And what about the consumer? What about service?

In fact, such a policy would lead to public outrage. But let's say that calmer heads prevailed. Some points out that you own the book only in a provisional sense. The text, after all, is still someone's "intellectual property" so therefore it is up to that "owner" to decide how his or her property is used.

Therefore the rules apply. Now, this is admittedly a bit strange. Imagine buying potatoes at the store with the rule that you can only make French fries and not hash browns. Or imagine buying a suit of clothes with the that it can only be worn on weekends. Strange things happen under the rubric of intellectual property.

Granted, a rule that you can only read the book this year and not next might have a point, but it is not one that serves the consumer. It is a producer policy, one designed to maximize profits for the store and the publisher. It would not be good for the reputation of the company that attempted such a thing. I'm not even entirely sure of its status in law.

Nor am I aware of any publisher who would do this. After all, even those who publish dated material like calendars don't try to restrict your right to look at the same calendar next year. There are such restrictions in some non-disclosure agreements regarding secret texts and documents, but never in a normal trade publication.

However, there is one exception: Catholic Missalette publishers. Every issue comes with a restriction. "The use of this publication is licensed only to current subscribers during the 2010 year." What about those leftover from last year? You must "discard any remaining printed material covered by the license at the end of the designated time period shown on the license."

What about saving up three years of missalettes and reusing them just to eliminate waste and saving parish money? Don't even think about it. That's not allowed. We are even told that it is illegal and violates "moral rights."

And so, every year at exactly this time, there must be a bonfire of the missalettes. They must be destroyed, lest you be immoral, or so we are told. Actually what happens is that they are all collected and hurled into the garbage bin out back and taken off the landfill.

Can you imagine? When I think of the work of the scribes of the first millinnium and a half of Christianity, when every book was the result of many thousands of hours, and when a book itself was the greatest treasure of a monastery, and when I think of the time spent even to create a Guttenberg Psalter, it truly boggles the mind that parishes are now under a legal obligation to destroy the Word of God.

Now, when I first heard this, I didn't believe it. As low an opinion of the methods of the mainline Catholic publishers as I've developed, I didn't believe that we were all under some kind of requirement to torch our missalettes at the end of year. The person who told me this insisted. My private thought was: "can you believe this kind of nonsense you pick up on the street?"

Just in case he was right and I was wrong, I decided to look it up. My own eyes popped out in astonishment. It is true, all true. It is not even the case that you can sign or read out of them but not record or photocopy. The way the license works, you may not read or sign out of them at all under any conditions. If you find an old missalette and start singing "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name," you are said to be violating someone's moral rights.

Yes, I know: this is a funhouse mirror room. It is utterly bizarre. As for moral rights, should we talk about the morality of the astonishing waste and destruction of perfectly decent printed matter here? This practice flies in the face of everything we know about normal business practice.

Think back to a year ago or so when Kindle arbitrarily deleted from all machines a book that people had purchased, and did so over some copyright struggle. Customers were furious. They inundated the company with complaints and outrage. This was a serious blow to Amazon's business model. The company clawed its way back with apologies and free stuff for everyone. It was a matter of corporate survival.

But we Catholics are just more passive I guess. We are glad to be abused year after year. We think nothing of it. We are told to destroy the things we bought and we just going ahead and do it, without a thought. Then we buy again. Millions upon millions of tithe dollars are spent this way. Money down the drain for no good reason but to feed a publishing machinery that lives off copyright and re-purchases.

Something is very strange here. A timeless religion is now being marketed with mandatory planned obsolescence.

Do I have a better idea? Yes. The texts of the Mass should be part of the commons. The music of the Mass should be part of the commons. Newly composed material should not be affixed with a ticking time bomb. If you buy it, it is yours. Another radical idea: publishers should start serving the Catholic world rather than looting it and mandating vast waste and destruction.

These are changes that can be enacted very easily and quickly and with no ecclesiastical intervention. Someday, we might look back and wonder in astonishment at how we put up with all of this in the past, and marvel at the amount of money paid for replacing perfectly good missalettes rather than given to musicians and architects and the poor.

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