Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Catastrophe of Catholic Copyrights

The really devastating costs of bad state law are hidden from view. So it is with copyright and its effect on Christian art and literature. Copyright -- a grant of monopoly privilege by the state -- has seriously distorted the methods used to distribute literature and art and the shape of the literature and art itself. And it has compromised the ability to carry out the evangelistic message of the faith.

Most of the time, I’m pretty calm about this issue, realizing that it is just part of life and that there’s nothing that can be done about. But then something happens that strikes me as absolutely outrageous, and I get angry all over again.

And so here is my sample outrage of today. I have a full book of notated sung Gospels in my digital briefcase. I would be thrilled to put it online right now. You could print out what you need and sing this Sunday. Then you could buy the book if you liked it.

It’s not going to happen. This treasure cannot be shared lest the full weight of the law and its enforcement arm come down hard on me and the domain on which it appears.

I’m thinking it’s been a long time since you heard anyone sing the Gospel from the pulpit. Maybe that is because the book of sung Gospels is not widely accessible or maybe that doesn’t make a difference at all. We never never know, will we? The copyright holder to the Catholic version of the scriptures (yes, you read that right) refuses to allow it to be posted online.

In other words, the copyright holder is actively working to stop the spread of the Gospels by means of the state. True. Ironic. Horrible.

Let’s just say that I wanted to defy the authorities because I believe in sharing the good news and all that. Let’s say that I didn’t believe in using government to prevent access to holy scripture. What would happen? It would be a dangerous thing to do. If I did it and persisted in doing it despite warning, the entire domain and the organization it represented could be instantly body bagged by the US Department of Homeland Security.

How might this situation change? Well, the copyright holder, which is the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on behalf the NAB which is administered by the CCD and yada yada, could put this book (the Bible) into the commons. It could do this on its own authority. It could do that right now, today, this minute. No one and nothing is preventing that.

Why won’t they? Well, they say they need the money. They have to deny access to the word of God so that they can extract money from you and me and everyone else. Otherwise, they say, they wouldn’t get any money from selling God’s word, and that would be very bad.

My response: any business model that relies on immorality needs to be changed. That’s especially true if the model is being used by the Catholic faith. Simony might be lucrative but it is still not morally advisable.

My other response: putting a work into the commons does not mean that you cannot sell it. There are way to make a commercial profit that are also consistent with generosity, good will, and human service. Given that the texts themselves are an infinitely reproduceable good, I’m pretty sure that posting sung Gospels online is not going to lead to a drastic fall in the sale of Bibles.

No, what’s going on here is pure folly.

It does not have to be this way.

Look at the example that ICEL has shown over the last few years. ICEL was once incredibly strict about the distributions of its texts. They never missed an opportunity to extract a dime or less.

But that has completely changed. In the preparations for the new Missal, ICEL posted its most valuable commodity, the completely body of Missal music, online for free download. It actually encouraged people to print them and sing them. This was a brilliant approach. It didn’t cause some kind of terrible corruption but rather exactly the opposite. It fostered a beautiful creativity and encouraged the widespread use of the chant.

As for the texts otherwise, it has been very liberal with permissions. It has also been open about the rationale for charging a fee for long scale printings. This approach has led to vast good will be spread about ICEL’s work and the new Missal. All this change required was a small step: let it go and let it grow.

Now let’s talk about music publishers like GIA and OCP. They both own a warchest of copyrights. They sell the right to sing their stuff to other publishers and to you and me. Every time you start to sing, coins in their coffers go ka-ching.

In order to keep this business model alive, they must marginalize public domain music as much as possible. This means the need to change traditional hymns. There must be new texts, new arrangements, new instrumental tricks added and the like.

You might think it would be good to sing a song the way it might have sounded in, say, the 1920s. That’s not going to happen if GIA and OCP have anything to do with it. They must twist, distort, contort, and mangle notes and chords, not because they are actually improving anything; no, no, that’s has nothing to do with it. It is all about re-copyrighting the thing. This would not be possible without access to the copyright law invented and universalized in the 19th century.

Catholic institutions have a choice. They can embrace this nonsense or they can do the right thing and eschew completely. For the sake of the faith and art, Catholics need to find a new way to do business that is consistent with the basic tenants of the Gospel.

Then, someday, perhaps we will be even permitted to sing that Gospel.