Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Copyright and The Book of Common Prayer

Today, Susanah Hanson, Library Director of the Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, sent this message to Atlantis, the e-list of the American Theological Library Association:

Dear all,

I just received the below query and wondered if someone out there could confirm my suspicions, as this question has come up more than once.

A patron called in to ask about the copyright of the 1979 (Episcopal) Book of Common Prayer.   His reasoning was that as there was no clear copyright notice in the BCP, that it was permissible to cut and paste portions of the BCP into a new yet-to-be-published book.  My thought is that this is not a good idea, for reasons both ethical and legal.

Any expert thoughts on this?

Thank you for your time and thoughts,

Responses on the list ranged from a crisp note that the Book of Common Prayer has never been copyrighted “if I am not mistaken”, through to abstruse legal niceties that modern Americans seem as adept at as a game of squash. Copyright notices were done away with in March 1989, declared one person with finality. This hit was answered with the volley that a book published in 1979 is protected for 95 years from date of publication. There was a feeling that the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer could not yet be in the public domain. Kevin L. Smith of Duke University added these slams: “However, much of the ‘original expression’ in the BCP is older than the 1979 version.  Some undoubtedly comes from the King James translation of scripture, and much probably comes from the first U.S. BCP that was ratified in 1789.  Note that that first BCP came out a year before the U.S. actually had any federal copyright law – the first such federal law was adopted in 1790.  Prayer before law!” There was talk of “fixed original creation”, in other words that copyright exists from the moment the biro is lifted from the page. Another contributor thought it at least prudent to contact the Episcopal Church, though whether the patron in question would care to be so prudent remains one of those imponderables. Here is my contribution to the discussion, from a somewhat different angle to the strictly legal:

The custom, as distinct from the rule, in compilation of collections of prayers in book form is to cite the source of the prayer directly after the presentation of the prayer itself. In most all of the prayer books of this nature in this Library, that is the practice. Prayer books in this collection come from all major denominations and all centuries of Christian prayer life. Citation of source is the norm. It is not just courteous to do so, or to solve copyright issues, but because these prayers are part of the continuous prayer life of the church itself. Quotation acknowledges that we are not living merely in a postmodern present but within the communion of saints. Historically this practice is there from the start of the church and takes lively form in the catenae and florilegia of Orthodox and Catholic prayer collections. Just because the prayers of, say, St John Chrysostom are not copyright does not mean we quote his prayers without attribution. In any contemporary collection of  prayers his name would come after the prayer itself, and very possibly the name of the translator too. It is no different in using prayers from the 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Susanah Hanson’s patron wants to ignore another custom also: we do not put our name to words we did not compose ourselves It is a curious person indeed who would want to take the credit for something written, as we all know, by Thomas Cranmer, his holy Latin and Greek predecessors and reverend English-speaking successors.

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