Saturday, April 24, 2010

Breakthrough on the Grail and Other Issues

There have been some breakthroughs on an issue that has troubled for me ever since the recognitio was granted for the Revised Grail Psalter. First some background.

Very few have actually seen the translation itself but all reports are that it is a big improvement over the Psalm translations currently in use. The Psalms are said to be more poetic and singable. They also conform to the Liturgiam Authenticam, the 2001 Roman document governing translations. There can be no surprise about the high quality given that it was produced after many years of work by Conception Abbey.

The controversy surrounded a seemingly inauspicious decision concerning the rights management of the text itself. The rights to the old Grail Psalter are owned by the Grail Society in the UK and managed by Harper Collins in the UK. Fees for printing and performing the Psalms are quite high, so high that musicians, choirs, and publishers have long chaffed under the rules. The available settings are not to everyone's liking, but to produce more and better ones requires payment. Many parish musicians try to avoid the fees by composing their own Psalms and singing them samizdat, keeping this under cover to avoid running afoul of the copyright police.

In the U.S., we have avoided this because the Grail has not been a standard source for Missal texts. However, when Conception revised the Psalter, it now faced a problem. It could claim ownership over the changed material but not the fundamental source material, which was still tied up under copyright with the Grail Society. That meant that Conception had limited discretion in rights management. It did what most institutions do under the circumstances, which is to contract attorneys to work out a deal.

The deal they worked out, which is still private (to the point that many bishops themselves are perhaps unaware of the details) was that the GIA would manage the U.S. distribution rights on behalf of the Grail Society. This is not an entirely atypical arrangement in the conventional publishing world. If this were a mystery novel or a college textbook, there would have been no controversy. Indeed, it is doubtful that anyone at Conception was fully aware of the fires that had been lit as part of the deal.

Looking at the big picture, matters begin to change. Parishes, musicians, composers, and producers will have to pay a single company for the legal rights to set or perform the new Psalm texts. They will have to pay GIA according to a fee schedule that is set by GIA alone. Now, to be sure, this could be a fair price. Moreover, GIA has gone the extra mile to try to create a system that allows blanket permission for posting new settings online on a per-Psalm basis (posting the entire Psalter is not allowed).

GIA also states that it is not in a position to make the Psalter part of the commons because it is restricted in what it can permit because it is not the final owner of the texts themselves, which will now be owned in a complex arrangement between Conception and the Grail Society. GIA is quick to correct anyone who says that it is the sole decision maker here: it states that it is only doing the bidding of Conception Abbey; meanwhile Conception says that it signed a legal agreement and so it is restricted in what it can and cannot do. In other words, this is a typical legal mess: everything seems wrong and yet no one seems to be in a position to take responsibility for it much less that power to change it.

You can see what kind of thicket this has created for what is, after all, a liturgical text that should, I submit, be part of the commons of the faith and not held in some kind of privatized, for-profit arrangement. I've been writing about this for the last 18 months, trying to draw attention to the dramatic difference this will make for every Catholic.

GIA has penned many assurances in private correspondence, all of which are some version of the following: Please be assured that this text will be available to all legitimate publishers on an equal basis at rates consistent with those established for official liturgical texts.

There are many terms in this assurance that are not reassuring, such as the statement concerning "legitimate" publishers. Does this mean that a private company might have the decision-making power to settle who is and isn't a legitimate publisher for Catholic liturgy?

The psalms are part of Mass, and the current settings most commonly in use are not what they should be. In recent years, many composers have done work to improve them in a way that is consistent with the growing sensibility in favor of solemnity and liturgical decorum. These efforts, if they are going to continue, require an environment of artistic freedom and freely available source texts. If the texts become the private property of one company, everyone will suffer.

Well, it took awhile but now are starting to see the protests spreading and growing.

Fr. Anthony Ruff, writing for a blog sponsored by Collegeville's Liturgical Press says:

This is a rather unique situation: the Church officially requires the use of a liturgical text which is copyrighted by one publisher and one monastery.... I imagine some have tired of Jeffrey’s harping on this issue and perhaps written him off. But I think he’s right.... it is a problem, I think, when you have to pay a publisher and a monastery to use the Church’s official text.

Meanwhile Jerry Galipeau of World Library Publications has voiced similar concerns:
I cannot understand why a private family (the owners of GIA Publications) can be granted a position as "worldwide agent" for the official prayers of the Church. Once the Lectionary for Mass is revised and the Grail Psalms are printed in that revised Lectionary, GIA Publications will receive payment when those psalms are published in worship resources, hymnals, missals, and other resources. How that payment is distributed has not been made public. For instance, does GIA retain an administrative fee, while directing other part or parts of the fee to the Abbey or to another party? This information would be helpful to those who are directly affected by this decision.

[Right now, when a composer sets the NAB (current version) of the psalms, the USCCB (who owns the rights to the NAB) has chosen to waive the royalty fee. So, this has been wonderful for composers, who are able to be paid a higher percentage, since they do not have to share the royalty fee with the NAB rights holder. Once composers begin setting the new Grail Psalms, their royalty payments will be reduced, since GIA will take their own share of the royalty, as "the worldwide agent for the Revised Grail Psalms." This is bad news for composers and simply does not make sense to me.]

Returning to the two statements above, these are made by people who have an affiliation with serious and major institutions that have a firm footing in the market for liturgical texts. There can be no question that serious thought were put into writing both as there is at least a possibility for negative repercussions. It is much easier, under the circumstances, to remain quiet. So both Fr. Ruff and Galipeau are to be congratulated for speaking out.

Can anything be done about this problem? Surely, but how and when I just don't know. I do know this: there can be no progress on this front without voices speaking out on the topic.

For 1900 years of Christianity, liturgical texts were part of the commons, their authority governed by Church law, not secular law. Even today, every aspect of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is public domain and therefore without cost. The introduction of the institution of copyright in the 20th century was deeply regrettable in my estimation and it is unsustainable in the digital age. I believe it is only just and right to seek to put an end to this practice as it relates to the liturgical texts. Perhaps in the end something good can come of this current controversy, if only that it has drawn attention to this larger and most important principle.

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