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Saturday, 20 December 2008

Who will own the psalms?

Jeffrey Tucker has an important post today on a matter which he has consistently highlighted: copyright of liturgical texts. In this case it is the Revised Grail Psalter which is to be the official text for the psalms used in the English Liturgy in the USA. See: Grail Psalms: A Path Forward.

Way back in the 1960s, the Grail (a group of lay women in England) gave over the rights to the Grail Psalter to Harper Collins. The rights to the US revision are in the hands of GIA, also a "for profit" company. Jeffrey is spot-on when he says:
The Grail used a copyright convention at the time to retain exclusive rights to them, and they handed them over to the publishing giant HarperCollins to manage the rights. In those days, not much thought was put into the problems of treating the Mass as the “intellectual property” of a private entity. Everyone was dependent on the mainstream publishers. There was no means of digital delivery. Even photocopies were cumbersome. But all that began to change in the years ahead. Today, an infinite number of versions of any text can be delivered without degrading the integrity of the original. For a Church devoted to bringing its faith to as many as possible and a Church with a special mission to the poor, digital delivery and on-demand printing is a dream.

But the dream could not be so long as copyright conventions were obeyed. On the contrary, access to The Grail took the same route as many short-sighted private lobbying arms in the private sector. They regarded any digital copying or on-demand publishing as a mortal threat to their financial well being. Instead of celebrating the spreading of the Gospel, they treated the proliferation of sacred texts as “piracy.” This will strike anyone as a grave perversion until you consider this background and the grave choice of the Grail to copyright their works and put a corporate giant in charge.
It is important to remember that Jeffrey is not speaking here as a barrack room lawyer trying to score a point. He and others are actively engaged in providing music for the liturgy, available to anyone in the world free of charge via the internet. These apostles of liturgical music are frustrated in their work by the continuing use of outdated copyright restrictions on liturgical texts.

To be honest, I am not that keen on the Grail Psalms. They were widely touted as the bees knees in the 1960s and 70s but they are part of the mid-twentieth century enthusiasm for denigrating the Vulgate and the Septuagint in favour of returning to the poetry of the Hebrew text. The problem is that the Hebrew text is uncertain and the version that most people work from is quite a late recension.

Furthermore, the Vulgate is hallowed by centuries of spiritual and theological commentary. This link is is obscured by the free translation of the Grail which seeks to reproduce the accented rhythmic pattern of the Hebrew. In some cases, the Vulgate preserves the meaning of a text quoted in the New Testament which is altered in the Grail. For example, Psalm 115 begins:
Credidi propter quod locutus sum ego autem humiliatus sum nimis
which is translated accurately in the Douai-Rheims version as:
I have believed, therefore have I spoken; but I have been humbled exceedingly.
The Grail corrects this, taking a different view of the structure of the sentence, giving:
I trusted, even when I said "I am sorely afflicted"
However St Paul in 2 Corinthians 4.13-14 accords with the reading which is preserved in the Vulgate psalter. He wrote:
Since we have the same spirit of faith as he had who wrote, "I believed, and so I spoke," we too believe, and so we speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.
Of course the poor chap had to rely on Jewish tradition as learnt in the school of Gamaliel and did not have access to mid-20th century scriptural scholarship.
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