Friday, June 12, 2009

[Liturgical] Information Wants to Be Free!

A thoughtful piece over at NLM, linked above, points out that many ritual texts are protected by copyright.  This will come as no surprise to any parish pastor (or music director) who has ever made a few photocopies from a hymnal, and then lain awake wondering when the lawyers would call.  We do tend to be a scupulous bunch.

The piece, by Jeffrey Tucker, makes a few observations:
  1. That this system is deeply beloved of publishers, such as ICEL and GIA (or Augsburg and Concordia) who make a lot of money from it;
  2. That scholars in medicine and the natural sciences have begun to move away from a system of copyrights and fees, both because it keeps much of their research buried, and because they believe that lives may depend upon the rapid dissemination of that research;
  3. That the work of liturgical scholars and translators is no less vital to the life of the church;
  4. That so long as the current copyright regime continues, "People will continue to circulate compositions and books and publications in secret, fearing lawsuits and crackdown." 
We at the Egg have mixed feelings about copyright and patent protections, but for the most part we are in the camp that considers them excessive.  While we certainly do believe that authors and artists have a right  to profit from their work, for example, we don't think that those rights should endure much beyond death.

Liturgical materials are somewhat different, but not vastly so.  A publisher certainly deserves to profit from the work it puts into a new service-book; but if it is a church publisher -- especially, like Augsburg or Concordia, the official publishing house of a denomination -- it seems to us that the publisher has a duty to forgo certain protections, at least with regard to its own community.

(That said, we do use and highly recommend Augsburg's Sundays and Seasons online liturgical library, which for a modest annual fee provides access to most of the material available in their hymnals.  Most, we say, because we can't seem to find the WOV Eucharistic Prayers, or any psalm prayers.  Somebody get on that, wouldja?)

But we wonder if the current laws, as they fall behind the emerging technology, don't create one of those mother-of-invention scenarios.  Tucker points to some monks who, rather than pay for the copyrighted GIA psalter, are using the public-domain psalter from the Anglican BCP.  All this is surely disconcerting to  Roman Catholic, among whom there are specific rules governing which texts and translations are acceptable in a given language and nation.  But for some of the rest of us, this opens up the prospect of a new world.

 Among Lutherans, after all, nobody is ever quite satisfied with the hymnal (which for us conventionally includes the service-book).  It is too high, too low, too modern, too antiquarian, etc.  We wonder how long it will be, then before every congregation has the capacity to create and publish its own book, customized to reflect its needs?  Print-on-demand services certainly exist, although they are a bit expensive.  But the cost is almost certain to diminish over time.

And if custom hymnals become widespread, two things will naturally follow:  
  1. A certain amount of copyright violation, answered by some legal action; and then
  2. A strong move toward public-domain resources.
Since public-domain resources tend to be older, it is natural to expect the new POD hymnals to take on an old-fashioned look.  We can expect older translations of ritual texts, reliance on hymns which -- even if they are not necessarily familiar -- were written and composed long ago.  While there will also be an explosion of creativity, from local worship leaders working for the benefit of their own immediate community, much of the underlying material will inevitably look and sound old.

We at the Egg are quite pleased by this prospect, since we long ago decided that we prefer the Jacobean language with which we were raised, and that we have at best mixed feelings about hymnody since 1930 or so.  (In fact, one of the little projects that Father Anonymous works on in his spare time is a Latin/English Daily Office, using the texts and rubrics of the Common Service Book.  He's odd that way.)

But we also have to confess a sense of loss.  Custom service books will mark, decisively, the end of the era in which liturgical uniformity was at least a nominal goal for churches of a particular confession.  In our childhood, it was possible to walk into any Lutheran church on Sunday morning and know, more or less, what to expect.  The ritual details might vary, but the words, the tunes, the songs would be the same ones you used at home, or very close.  While we never quite achieved Muhlenberg's dream of "one church, one book," we were for a few generations -- roughly 1888 until 1995 -- pretty close.

Augsburg-Fortress put an end to this era, pretty decisively, with the publication of With One Voice, a "supplement" to the LBW which started the process of replacing it.  (In fairness, congregations had long since begun shopping around for their own supplements, often from non-Lutheran publishers.)  The current profusion of texts available from this single publisher already means encourages, and practically requires, each congregation to make a series of liturgical decisions -- Confession or Thanksgiving for Baptism?  Which combination of of ten musical settings, fifteen Eucharistic Prayers -- which result in a highly customized service.

So the next logical step will be a radical localization of the liturgy.  There is much to be said for this idea, but also much to be said against it.  But this can certainly be said about it:  those musicians and  liturgical scholars who want to see their work widely disseminated in this new world will do well to forgo the protections of current copyright law.


Anonymous said...

It seems to me that if your description of the brave new world of copyright-free, local option hymnals is accurate, the quality of hymnody would suffer. Maybe this is an overstatement, but I would imagine those who could afford to make it without royalties would be the most likely to be hobby musicians/composers.

That said, there are certainly an abundance of examples of copyright material in hymnals which might have benefited from the gentle editorial process of a disastrous fire.

Father said...

I think you're right, within certain limits. What would suffer is the quality of *contemporary* hymnody -- bad enough already, as you say, but likely to get worse.

(I still treasure a cartoon from "The Lutheran," years ago: a pastor announces "today's hymn is an original composition by the vicar, 27 stanzas, based on the Smalcald Articles." The cartoon was labeled "Pastor Ericsen's last Sunday.")

Arguably, however, the overall quality of hymnody might be improved by reliance on older resources. The 18th and 19th centuries produced an enormous number of now copyright-free hymns. Many were lousy, but many others were excellent -- and made better use both of Biblical language and of traditional theology than much modern hymnody does.