Saturday, September 16, 2006

Copyright Laws and the Unity of the Church

I went to a hymnal workshop today. We heard a lot of good things about LSB. We sang a fairly representative sample of what's in the new hymnal. (Let the reader understand.) But it was the discussion of copyright laws and licensing fees that most captured my attention.

It is amazing to me that a publisher can claim ownership rights of the collects that have been in use in the church for centuries, even prior to the Reformation. It is amazing to me that a publisher can claim ownership of the words of the catechism, words that many of us carry in our hearts and souls, words that fall out of our lips in many a conversational venue.

It is stunning to me that a publishing house can say that people must request permission to use material from a 65-yr-old book, even though it says in the book itself that people are free to use the material in that book in the worship life of the Church. Likewise, it is stunning to me that making tapes of the Divine Service so that the shut-ins can hear the sermons, the readings, the prayers, and the hymns is something that is considered copyright infringement.

But the thing that I'm pondering now is --
What will this teach us?
The moral of the story seems to be that you have to keep reaching into your pocket if you use somebody else's words. So maybe you ought not use everybody else's words. Or anybody else's words. Forget doctrine -- maybe the WELS and the ELS and the LCMS and the ELCA all need different hymnals because none of us can agree to let the other be the "owner" of the words. Who knows when the hymn-cartels would jack up prices on hymns or liturgy? Maybe each pastor needs to translate the catechism for himself to teach to his parishioners, so that he doesn't have to pay a copyright holder for the use of those words. Maybe each pastor needs to develop his own liturgy so that he won't get in trouble for making tapes of the Service for his shut-ins.

Conservatives usually recognize that taxing any behavior discourages that behavior. It seems to me that "taxing" the use of the Church's common liturgy, common hymns, common Creeds, common prayers, will discourage use of those common words. It will push people in the direction of "every man did what was right in his own eyes."

I'm not in favor of open communion. I'm not in favor of praying with Buddhists and Sikhs in Yankee Stadium. But there is a place for a proper ecumenism, and that is found in holding to the liturgy that's been handed down, the creeds, the collects, the canticles, some of the hymns, etc. It seems to me that we should encourage the use of these words Christians share.

One-fourth of the workshop was on copyrights and licensing and paying for rights to use the materials. It makes me paranoid -- like I should quit whistling hymns on my paper route, quit singing hymns as I work in the church office. Oh no -- maybe I'm breaking copyright laws by giving a "public performance." Oh no -- maybe they'll catch me and fine me $500 for each hymn that escapes my lips.

Churches can buy an annual license that covers nearly all uses of copyrighted material. It was ironicly amusing that one of the few hymns that is not covered by the blanket license (and thus requires extra trouble and extra cost if someone needs copyright permission) is entitled "Where Charity and Love Prevail."


  1. VERY good point.

    Well said. I wonder if somewhere along the line what will put a stop to this is if some hymnwriter's descendants decide to sue because CPH or another publisher cannot in any way have the TRUE rights to it.

    In reality, no one has...but who should more than a relative, or a right to the proceeds from hymnal sales? Unfortunately, maybe it will take something like that to draw legal attention to it...then it will be impossible to actually print a hymnal and sell it in the first place.

  2. With regard to publishers having rights to the hymns -- that's not what CPH is doing. They themselves paid for the hymns in LSB that aren't already in the public domain. And they are offering a license that really is a service to the congregations -- it allows the congregations to just pay the fee and let CPH deal with the permissions and the fees to the copyright holders. With regard to hymns, what CPH is doing is making it lots easier for congregations to comply with the govt's copyright laws.

    And I understand the need for the authors and composers to be paid. Some of them aren't even asking to be paid, but just want to maintain ownership of their music so that someone else doesn't take it away from them, and then make the true writer pay the copyright-stealer for use of his own work. (Because that kind of thing does happen.)

    Nevertheless, with all the emphasis on how important it is to abide by copyright laws, and with the fees (which look small to many churches, but which are huge for some of us who live in poor rural parishes), it sure does make a person think twice about wanting to use the same words everybody else is using. Which is a very very bad thing.

  3. Yes, and we at the FBI enforce such laws. So don't make me come and get you.

    Inspector Erskine
    (aka: minister of hugs)