Why ICEL Needs To Put Its Texts Into the Commons

I’ve written uncountable numbers of words scolding ICEL for keeping its texts proprietary and charging for access – on grounds that this is a practice contrary to the whole history of Christianity. Even before Christianity, Judaism taught that the teaching of the Torah and the knowledge of the rabbis was not a commodity to be bought and sold. They could charge for the time, for the room in which they teach, and the books that contained the teaching, but the knowledge itself could not be commodified or limited.

“ALL you that thirst, come to the waters, and you that have no money make hast, buy, and eat; come ye, buy wine and milk without money and without any price.” Isaiah 55:1

The Christian ideal of the same impulse is embodied in the prohibition against “simony” – a sin named for Simon Magus (Acts 8:18-24) who offered disciples money in exchange for the laying on of hands. Peter said to Simon: “Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.”

But enough with the condemnations and lectures. I would like to make positive case for something wonderful and easy that ICEL could do right now. It could post a single note on its website that said: “All texts bearing an ICEL copyright may be distributed, copied, transmitted, or recorded, provided ICEL is acknowledged as the source.” Over time, the front matter of all ninety-six books could be customized with this announcement on the next printing, but, for now, the digital announcement would be enough.

ICEL could formalize this announcement with a legal stamp of a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license, which is nothing other than a means for getting around certain legal contingencies on texts. The plainly worded announcement would do the same work. The point is to put the texts into the commons where they belong and where they would be were it not for modern legislation that artificially restricts the use of texts.

How could ICEL do this? It is just a matter of doing it. There is nothing more to do. ICEL owns the texts and can control them completely. It is as simple as that. It is a small step with enormous consequences.

For starters, the outpouring of joy across the entire world would be spectacular to behold. It would be one of the largest jail breaks in the history of Christendom, all this wonderful books set free at last, just as the teachings and sermons and liturgical books of all ages were free from restrictions on their distribution.

For decades, ICEL has been the subject of decades of derision and beating, and now with the new texts on the way, this problem has intensified. All of this would change instantly. The global sense of elation would be palpable. The world press would take notice. The New York Times would sing the praises of ICEL. The point of Christian generosity and charity would be undeniable. There isn’t a soul who wouldn’t praise ICEL for having done the right thing. It would be a bright day in the history of the faith.

In light of this, ICEL should put up a banner on its site that says: “If you support our efforts to evangelize the world with these free resources, please consider a contribution.” I would certainly dig as deep as I could. So would thousands, even millions of others. The gratitude would translate into vast financial contributions that I would expect would far exceed the amount that ICEL currently receives in royalties. Even better, this money would be given voluntarily, not extracted by force. The ICEL staff would feel better about itself and be flush with new resources to do its work.

What happens next? That’s when the world community of English-speaking Catholics gets to work. Imagine of blizzard of fantastic iPhone apps that contain the Rite of Baptism for Children, The Book of Blessings, The Book of Prayers, The Code of Canon Law, The Order of Christian Funerals, and the entire Roman Missal, right there in the palm of your hand. No more lugging around heavy books (though anyone would be free to do so). No more being stuck without the right blessing at your fingertips.

What would ICEL have to do to develop these? Nothing. They would all be developed within a matter of weeks and months, on the initiative of people like me and thousands of others.

Every single one of the texts would be scanned and put online, some low quality but many high quality, perfect for printing at a moment’s notice. These texts would appear on uncountable numbers of websites. They would be multiplied again and again and again without limit.

There would be Kindle editions and iPad editions and editions for every epub that is around. Publications that routinely pirate these texts without payment – you know who you are – would no longer have to fly under the radar screen or fear the copyright police. They could go about their missionary work with their heads held high.

Monasteries, convents, and parishes could all freely record their liturgical services and post them on youtube without having a sense that they are doing something wrong. They could sell CDs and custom missals to raise money for themselves.

The new missal, when it appears, would come in a huge range of editions. Some would be heavily bound with the most expensive leather and beautiful medieval stylings. Other editions would come in small paperback editions that you can carry in your pocket, and wouldn’t that be glorious to have an edition that every single Catholic could afford to carry (imagine a price of, say, $7)? Talk about evangelization!

The Bishops and ICEL are right now extremely concerned about catechesis on the new missal. Well, stop worrying about it. Making the texts part of the commons will allow all the creative energies of all Catholics to put to use in the cause of education. Nothing educates like the text itself, and so long as the text lives in copyright prison, there will be problems. Why limit the Gospel? Free it completely and 90% of the work is already done for you. ICEL has limited resources, so why not call upon the vast energies out there just waiting for a chance to help?

The next stage will be spin off publications. There will be manuals, hymnbooks, songbooks, children’s books, commentaries, reference sets, dictionaries, concordances, searchable files, illustrated books, and many other media types that no one has yet thought of. There will be audio books and instructional DVDs and CDs, as well as downloadable MP3s. Do you know of priests who have trouble singing the whole Mass? Well, this is an easy thing to correct if anyone can make a demo file and distribute it without paying for the privilege. Keep in mind that none of this can be done now, at least not legally, without jumping through hoops and paying ICEL. This is why it is not being done now!

Why not harness all of these energies on behalf of the Catholic liturgical project? ICEL needs help. It cannot be singularly charged with the whole burden. It cannot expect only four publishers who know the ropes to do the bulk of the work here. It is a very simple matter of freeing the texts that would make the difference. In other words, all of ICEL’s texts would take on the same precise status as all Christian texts have had from the first to the late nineteenth century when copyright enforcement first became global and some Christians wrongly took the bait and deliberately set out to limit their influence.

To be sure, many Christian texts are part of the commons already. The old Latin Missal is an example. No one has to pay anyone to publish that text. The same is true with Gregorian chant from all ages. The same is true of the Douay-Rheims Bible and hundreds of other translations that are in public domain now.

Take a close look here: all of these source texts are flourishing in every way right now! I can call take out my phone and look at the completely music in the old rite for the whole of today’s services, right now, and it takes about two seconds. I cannot do this with all of the texts that are under conventional copyright. There is a reason for this.

The ICEL decision would inspire other publishers too and perhaps put an end to the copyright arms race that is killing the life of the liturgical text. GIA might move to do the same with the Grail Psalter. The same could happen with the NAB translation of the Bible. Composers might even follow in line. The entire house of copyright cards could fall, and what a blessing that would be! But it all must start with ICEL.

So a plea to ICEL: thousands of others like me want to be involved. We want to help. We want to spread the Good News. We want to work as messengers for Catholic liturgy. Please allow us to do so in every possible way. It is just a matter of posting a simple sentence.

St. Augustine once gave a homily about the divine qualities of the word and its capacity for being shared. He pointed out that he need not parse out his words carefully for fear of losing them to the hearer, but rather that the hearer can take all of his words even as he can retain them. He made an analogy here to the way the Father and the Son can have the same thoughts and the same words without the one displacing the other. Herein lies the mystery and glory of the message, the magnificence of the idea and its infinite reproducability. It was precisely the capacity of words to be spread, and for truth to be held by an unlimited number of people, that inspired the spreading of Christianity all over the world.

Let’s recall that power, that glory, and make it happen again.

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