Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Is Copyright Necessary for Liturgical Discipline?

At the website of the Oregon Catholic Press, we read the following:

If we like the current musical settings of the Mass, what’s going to happen if we just keep using them and simply ignore the new texts?

Once the revised translation of the Mass is promulgated (declared approved for official use), there is usually a timeline announced relative to its applicable date of official use. Since the translations are copyrighted and the US bishops’ conference is charged with administration of the texts we use in worship, it is the bishops’ conference that declares the exact translation that is approved for use in the US.

It all seems sound and unobjectionable but for the invocation of the word copyright here. The implication is that somehow copyright adds teeth to the mandate, making it enforceable.

This is a common confusion. Copyright policies have nothing to do with adding weight to use a particular text. If anything, the opposite is true, since conventional copyright policies usually involve the requirement of some sort of payment, and this payment alone - to say nothing of the book keeping and hassle - is what often discourages publishers and composers from using official texts.

In this sense, conventional copyright imposes a kind of tax on using the official text, which is why the most widely used English Mass setting in this country (Mass of Creation) actually departs from the official text: whether intended or not, the royalty payment requires are inapplicable for this particular Mass setting. One does not need to look hard for other examples. Conventional copyright policy actually restricts use and discourages compliance.

More people are beginning to realize this. In this period of transition from old texts to new ones, many people have begun to realize that there is a serious problem with imposing restrictions and payments on the use of required texts. This problem affects not only the Missal texts but also the Psalms that have been recently approved for use in the United States. All of these texts are headed straight for the copyright prison - which would be a problem in any age but is all-the-more objectionable in a digital age. Christians need to use the new media to evangelize. We need to use the new media to inspire more composers and more typesetters and publishers. The policies of the old world (20th century) have no place in a digital age.

The protests against these policies are growing and know no bound of the usual left-right/liberal-conservative divide. One problem is that the decision-making apparatus on these questions is so diffuse and decentralized that one doesn't entirely know where to go to object. This is very frustrating.

I'll say again what I've said many times to the point of tedium: liturgical texts should be part of the commons of the faith, available to anyone to use without charge. The integrity of the text is nonetheless protected simply by the authority of the Bishops. The irony here is that by making the texts part of the commons, which can happen with a simple phrase in the front matter, the Bishops thereby remove the tax on the texts and encourage compliance and widespread use.

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