I want to briefly weigh in on Brandon Vogt’s discussion of copyright and permission in relation to official Church texts.
Basically – the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the New American Bible, papal documents, and (although he doesn’t stress this – it has come up enough in other quarters to merit mention) – liturgical texts.
Copyright is a knotty, knotty area. I have some familiarity with the area not only because I’m an author who must seek permission to use texts in my work, but because, as general editor of the Loyola Classics series, one of my primary responsibilities was to track down copyright holders.
(And I actually enjoyed it. It was detective work, essentially.)
Brandon’s post here lays out the problems, so I don’t need to rehash, but the issue is, at root, that the USCCB and the Vatican have the rights to these official church texts, and in order to reproduce any part of them, one must seek permission and, in some cases, pay a fee. As many have found, it is not always easy to get permission (although sometimes it is) and the fees can be high.
As with all publishing, the permissions sought can vary, and usually according to the amount of text you want to quote. Under a certain number of words (or verses), you are okay with just getting permission, but beyond that, you might have to pay a fee, and so on. I don’t know the details, but that’s the way it works, not only for these works in question, but for any work one writer wants to quote in publishing, period.
Now, in this world, there are serious questions raised about copyright (in general) all the time. Copyright is routinely exploited, and right now in the United States, the length of time a work is copyrighted is quite long (76 years, I think) and is routinely voted to be extended by Congress, actions that are blamed mostly on Disney, who doesn’t want Micky Mouse to become public domain. Seriously. Not kidding. That’s what drives the quite lengthy term of copyright in this country.
There are also anti-copyright absolutists who argue strenuously for the injustice and absurdity of the notion of “intellectual property” at all.
Many have pointed out the advantages to a creator to being relaxed with copyright. The South Korean rapper Psy, for example, has allowed parodies of Gangam Style to flourish on the internet, figuring, we can assume, that the publicity can only help him. And he’s right.
So yes, copyright gives us a lot to talk about. But let’s get back to #FreetheWord.
What Brandon argues for is for the Church to protect its intellectual property under a different kind of license - one that would permit the Church to retain control over the content, yet would allow for wider use of the materials by others who would like to help in the ministry of evangelization. To produce the documents in other formats not provided by the institution, for example, as Brandon sought to do, or to disseminate snippets of the Catechism or NAB and so on.
I think this is fair. It makes sense to me. But here are some other bullet points, that are, as per usual, all over the place.
- I’m a big advocate for “free.” I hate to see parishes charge for programs and materials. (And don’t tell me - oh, Catholics are so stingy, they have to charge. Nonsense. When Catholics are presented with a goal, as in “We don’t want to charge a single dime for religious education or adult formation materials this year, but we need $10K more in donations to accomplish that - it would happen. Catholics just don’t go for vague fundraising appeals anymore, if they ever did. There is not so much trust that the institution is making fair or good use of the funds. )
- At the same time, things do cost money. It would seem like a very good idea for the Church not to charge at all for use of the materials, but then, if you were still requiring users to ask permission, you would have to have staff to vet those requests, and you probably have a lot more requests, so that means you would have to have more staff to vet them…people who would need to be paid, and paid a just wage.
- Of course, these materials are freely available. You can access everything from the NAB to the Code of Canon Law on the internet, at no cost.
- The issue is format and re-use. These are good conversations to have, and the institutional Church certainly needs to understand how quickly the world of information is changing , how people are accessing information, and need to be more on the ball about that.
- So I think it’s good to avoid hyperbole and exaggeration in the conversation. More people have more access to more Churchish information than ever before in history. At no cost. So yes, the “Word” is still free. Just because it’s hard to read on your Kindle doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible.
- There is always – and has always been – great tension in the Church between the forces of creativity/innovation and those of Holding Down the Fort. I don’t think there’s any sunny resolution to that tension anywhere in the future. Exhibit A in recent history is the history of Catholic television in the United States. The bishops tried and failed and bored everyone to death, Mother Angelica succeeded, ticked bishops off, and now there is some sort of uneasy truce on that score, but still, there are plenty of Church official-types, lay and cleric, who believe that the Church would be better off without EWTN.
- It’s not inconceivable that there are individuals who work for the institutional Church who put up roadblocks to easier access because they don’t want the message out. During Pope Benedict’s papacy, questions were raised about this constantly in relation to translation issues. Why did it take so long to get these translations done? Why were they sometimes….wrong? Why is the motu proprio liberalizing the 1962 Mass available on the Vatican website only in Latin and….Hungarian?
- In the United States, there was, of course, great resistance to the release of the Catechism. That was twenty years ago – that I sat in diocesan religious education meetings and heard a diocesan directors and yes, a bishop say things like, “We have to be careful who gets their hands on this Catechism.” and “It’s not for the people, really, you know. It’s for us – clergy and directors and so on. ” and “We don’t want the people reading the Catechism and then comparing their parish programs to what’s in it.”
- I’m assuming that two decades later, we’re past all that…but…you never know.
- It’s also amusing how quickly they came down on Brandon when compared with the length of time various idiocies and worse are allowed to fester…priorities!
- $$$$. It’s an issue, and, as Brandon points out, more transparency on that score would be good.
- All that said, I want to say that I do think the Church – both nationally and internationally has a strong interest in protecting its intellectual property. I think permission should not be a hassle and a half to seek, but I do think it should be required and imaginatively and courageously granted.
- But to play the other side, just consider this, as well. Even if you don’t make money from repurposing a part of the Catechism or a papal document or the NAB, you might gain something else, right? If I jump on an opportunity to re-use a Church document in a way that redirects people to my apostolate instead of to the USCCB or vatican.va – I’m gaining something. I’m building my brand. I’m gaining followers. I might even sell some more books or get some more speaking gigs.
- I just think it’s good to be honest about it. I actually do think it’s better for a seeker to end up at the Vatican’s website than mine, for pete’s sake. I want that to happen. I’ve also never had the deep hate for vatican.va that some do. I don’t think it’s that awful. The search function needs a big tune-up, but…I’ve always sorta liked it, myself.
- One thing that Brandon doesn’t emphasize is liturgical texts, which is a whole other kettle of fish. Jeffrey Tucker has very able fought this battle for ages, and I really stand in 100% agreement with him on this. But (again) – as anyone who has tried to find it knows, the official order of the Mass in English isn’t available online. It just isn’t!
- There have been times this has struck me as really quite ridiculous. And I was thinking about this this morning, after I read Brandon’s post and as I headed off to daily Mass at the Cathedral downtown.
- And as I sat there, praying and listening, I thought…hmmm. Is it really so bad that if you want to know exactly what the Catholic Mass is all about, you have to actually go to a church to find out?
- I will be rude and say that I doubt that’s the motivation behind the online absence, but perhaps it’s a decent sort of unintended consequence. Since the Mass is not just words on a screen – in fact since the Mass isn’t that at all – it makes sense that if I really want to know, I must go to the place where it happens.
- (Now, what helpful materials I encounter once I actually do get myself down to that Catholic church to see…well that’s another kettle of fish, isn’t it?)
- So I think that some of this is just the usual institutional short-sightedness and slowness, some of it is an expression of legitimate concern to protect the texts, some of it might be financially motivated, and some of it might be cultural – as in, I don’t know how many Vatican staff are thinking that lots of people are wanting to read the newest encyclical on their smartphones. Probably not even vaguely on their radars. It should be, considering that while no one can predict the future, it does seem as if mobile devices are certainly giving a beat down to the “traditional” computer, and material needs to be formatted with that in mind, always.
So, those are random, as is usual for me these days. In short: I agree that permissions and copyright should be reexamined and that creativity in the name of evangelism should be encouraged. But I also think we should be realistic and honest. There really is no such thing as totally “free,” and to move towards more expansive permission-granting is actually going to require more human resources than being tight with them, there are ways that individual creators can benefit from more relaxed policies that are short of direct material profit, but still perhaps not the most spiritually healthy, and finally - this is not just a Catholic issue.
This is where I think the conversation could have more depth. What do other international Christian denominations do about rights to Bible translations, foundational catechetical texts and liturgical texts? Are they all just there, for anyone to use in anyway they like, even with permission?
I don’t have time to do a lot of research on this, but even a quick search turned up similar (heated) discussions in relation to Luther’s Small Catechism, for example. You can’t just quote from the ESV or NRSV without getting permission – although the permission is far more relaxed and easier to acquire than it is for the NAB which, she said snidely, is perhaps not a tragedy.
(Most Catholic publishers will tell you, as an author, to not use the NAB in your writing because of the hassle and possible expense. )
I think that further examination would find that these denominations do, for the most part, have restrictions on use of these materials, and it would deepen the conversation to look at what they do as well.