Psalm Breakthrough
  • Jeffrey TuckerJeffrey Tucker
    Posts: 3,624
    Here is my column for The Wanderer this week

    Breakthrough on the Grail and Other Issues
    by Jeffrey Tucker

    There has been some breakthroughs on an issue that has troubled for me ever since the U.S. Bishops approved the Revised Grail Psalter as the standard Psalm translation for the forthcoming Roman Missal in English. First some background.

    Very few have actually seen the translation itself but all reports are that it is a big improvement over the Psalm translations currently in use. The Psalms are said to be more poetic and singable. They also conform to the Liturgium Authenticum, the 2001 Roman document governing translations. There can be no surprise about the high quality given that it was produced after many years of work by Conception Abbey.

    The controversy surrounded a seemingly inauspicious decision concerning the rights management of the text itself. The rights to the old Grail Psalter are owned by the Grail Society in the UK and managed by Harper Collins in the UK. Fees for printing and performing the Psalms are quite high, so high that musicians, choirs, and publishers have long chaffed under the rules. The available settings are not to every liking, but to produce more and better ones requires payment. Many parish musicians try to avoid the fees by composing their own Psalms and singing them samizdat, keeping this under cover to avoid running afoul of the copyright police.

    In the U.S., we have avoided that fate because the Grail has not been a standard source for Missal texts. However, when Conception revised the Psalter, it now faced a problem. It could claim ownership over the changed material but not the fundamental source material, which was still tied up under copyright with the Grail Society. That meant that Conception had limited discretion in rights management. It did what most institutions do under the circumstances, which is to contract attorneys to work out a deal.

    The deal they worked out, which is still completely secret (to the point that the Bishops themselves seem unaware of the details) was that the GIA would managed the U.S. distribution rights on behalf of the Grail Society. This is not an entirely atypical arrangement in the conventional publishing world. If this were a mystery novel or a college textbook, there would have been no controversy. Indeed, it is doubtful that anyone at Conception was fully aware of the fires that had been lit as part of the deal.

    Looking at the big picture, matters begin to change. Parishes, musicians, composers, and producers will have to pay a single company for the legal rights to set or perform the new Psalm texts. They will have to pay GIA according to a fee schedule that is set by GIA alone. Now, to be sure, this could be a fair price. Moreover, GIA has gone the extra mile to try to create a system that allows blanket permission for posting new settings online on a per-Psalm basis (posting the entire Psalter is not allowed).

    GIA further suggests that it is not in a position to make the Psalter part of the commons because it is restricted in what it can permit because it is not the final owner of the texts themselves, which will now be owned in a complex arrangement between Conception and the Grail Society. GIA is quick to correct anyone who says that it is the sole decision maker here: it claims that it is only doing the bidding of Conception Abbey; meanwhile Conception says that it signed a legal agreement and so it is restricted in what it can and cannot do. In other words, this is a typical legal mess: everything seems wrong and yet no one seems to be in a position to take responsibility for it much less that power to change it.

    You can see what kind of thicket this has created for what is, after all, a liturgical text that by justice should be part of the commons of the faith and not held in some kind of privatized, for-profit deal. I've been writing about this serious problem for the last 18 months, trying to draw attention to the dramatic difference this will make for every Catholic.

    GIA has penned many assurances in private correspondence, all of which are some version of the following: "Please be assured that this text will be available to all legitimate publishers on an equal basis at rates consistent with those established for official liturgical texts." There are many terms in this assurance that are not reassuring, such as the caveat concerning "legitimate" publishers; it is actually alarming to consider that a private company has decision-making power to settle who is and isn't a legitimate publisher for Catholic liturgy.

    The Psalms are part of Mass, and the current settings most commonly in use are not what they should be. In recent years, many composers have done work to improve them in a way that is consistent with the growing sensibility in favor of solemnity and liturgical decorum. These efforts, if they are going to continue, require an environment of artistic freedom and freely available source texts. If the texts become the private property of one company, everyone will suffer.

    Well, it took awhile but now are starting to see the protests spreading and growing.

    Fr. Anthony Ruff, writing for a blog sponsored by Collegeville's Liturgical Press says:

    This is a rather unique situation: the Church officially requires the use of a liturgical text which is copyrighted by one publisher and one monastery.... I imagine some have tired of Jeffrey’s harping on this issue and perhaps written him off. But I think he’s right.... it is a problem, I think, when you have to pay a publisher and a monastery to use the Church’s official text.

    Meanwhile Jerry Galipeau of World Library Publications has voiced similar concerns:

    I cannot understand why a private family (the owners of GIA Publications) can be granted a position as "worldwide agent" for the official prayers of the Church. Once the Lectionary for Mass is revised and the Grail Psalms are printed in that revised Lectionary, GIA Publications will receive payment when those psalms are published in worship resources, hymnals, missals, and other resources. How that payment is distributed has not been made public. For instance, does GIA retain an administrative fee, while directing other part or parts of the fee to the Abbey or to another party? This information would be helpful to those who are directly affected by this decision.

    Right now, when a composer sets the NAB (current version) of the psalms, the USCCB (who owns the rights to the NAB) has chosen to waive the royalty fee. So, this has been wonderful for composers, who are able to be paid a higher percentage, since they do not have to share the royalty fee with the NAB rights holder. Once composers begin setting the new Grail Psalms, their royalty payments will be reduced, since GIA will take their own share of the royalty, as "the worldwide agent for the Revised Grail Psalms." This is bad news for composers, and very good news, of course, for GIA Publications. This simply does not make sense to me.

    Perhaps these writings don't sound as fiery as I've written on the topic but I'm an independent actor here and don't have to worry about the fallout. These two statements are made in affiliation with serious and major institutions that have a firm footing in the market for liturgical texts. There can be no question that serious thought were put into writing both. After all, the GIA is in a position to punish any of its competitors who protest too much about this. It is much easier, under the circumstances, to remain quiet. So both Fr. Ruff and Galipeau are to be congratulated for speaking out.

    Can anything be done about this problem. Surely but how and when I just don't know. I do know this: there can be no progress on this front without voices speaking out on the topic, frankly and without fear.

    For 1900 years of Christianity, liturgical texts were part of the commons, their authority governed by Church law, not secular law. Even today, every aspect of the extraordinary form of the Mass is public domain and therefore untaxed. The introduction of the institution of copyright in the 20th century was deeply regrettable and it is unsustainable in the digital age. In the name of justice and morality, we need to put an end to the practice of taxing the right to use liturgical texts. Perhaps in the end something good can come of this current controversy, if only that it has drawn attention to this larger and most important principle.
  • JMJ_coder
    Posts: 19
    I still don't understand why the USCCB didn't insist that any liturgical translation that is to be the official liturgical text in the English language must transfer all copyrights to the USCCB or at least to the USCCB Publishing House?
  • Jeffrey TuckerJeffrey Tucker
    Posts: 3,624
    Honestly, I think it was just a mistake. No one really focused on it. I have no evidence to support that intuition.
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 9,182
    The USCCB has no influence with the Grail, really: "The Grail" is a women's religious association: originally Catholic, but now an interfaith movement into all sorts of "spiritual searching".

    The original branch in Holland dwindled to about 60 members. There are Grail branches in other countries; in the US, there are about 250 members. Maybe there are a thousand people worldwide in it, involved in religious and humanitarian causes.

    The English branch that copyrighted their Psalter in 1963 with the Gelineau melodies isn't listed on the group's international website, so it may have dwindled away to nothing but a paper corporation. I can only wonder where the royalty money has been going in recent years. It might be an interesting question for someone to research in England.

    (I don't imagine the Vatican would be thrilled at the prospect of propping up a formerly-Catholic religious movement that welcomes Zen Buddhists with royalty money from parishes.)

    Anyway, unless the Grail were to give up the rights as an act of charity, the USCCB would just have to look elsewhere for a translation of the Psalms.
  • IanWIanW
    Posts: 757
    The Grail Society is a Catholic secular institute in the UK. The web-site advertises the Grail Psalms, though there's nothing definitive to say that this body is still the copyright holder. If they are, they aren't waxing fat on the proceeds. All charities in England and Wales have to make a financial summary available to the Charity Commission, who publish it on their web-site (nota bene - there's no exemption for religious charities). Those whose income is more than 10,000 GBP (c. 6,500 USD) have to provide more detailed information. As The Grail doesn't fall into that category I can't see a balance sheet or income statement, but if they do still hold the copyright they're not exactly farming it! Anyone interested in finding out more could, of course, ask them.
  • Jeffrey TuckerJeffrey Tucker
    Posts: 3,624
    ack incredible. It's just too bad that some serious IP attorney doesn't have 6 months to work for free and solve all these issues. I am deeply suspicious of nearly every aspect of this whole deal, mainly because the players themselves all blame each other for the mess, i.e. no one takes final responsibility. The secrecy of the whole deal also sets off alarms.
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 9,182
    Thanks for the information, Ian. It's good to see that the Grail Society in the UK appears to have maintained its status as a secular institute of the Church.

    The copy on Google Books has a 1963 copyright notice (renewed 1991) in the name of "The Grail (England)", so this is probably the right organization.

    Sales of Grail Psalms products have probably been slow for years -- after all, they're used in the LOH and in GIA's Gelineau-psalm books -- neither of which is mass-market material or renewed annually. OTOH, when the RGP starts appearing in mass-produced "missalette" booklets, that will produce a steady and probably more substantial income stream.