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May 2011
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I cared not for consequences but wrote [userpic]
Pagans and Copyright (x-posted)

Some years ago, a local-to-me Pagan band recorded a number of songs and chants. Some were written by members of the group; some were not. Where author attribution would normally go, they listed several of the songs as “traditional.”

The trouble is, those songs weren't “traditional.” They were written by individuals, were in print and still under copyright. It's possible that the band members just didn't know that, however...it wouldn't have taken them very much effort at all to find out.

A couple years later, the band split; some retained the original name and some of them formed another group. The second group wanted to continue singing the songs they'd been known for as part of the original group.

Their former band mates became very irate. The new group had no right to THEIR songs, I was told, in tones of outrage.

I was not very sympathetic.



Feri Tradition material has been stolen more than once. I was once shocked to hear a Unitarian Universalist Winter Solstice program end with the Feri circle casting: “By the earth that is Her body...” etc. I asked to see a printed copy of the program; it was written and sold within the UUCA by two individuals who included a footnote that the invocation “may have been” written by Victor Anderson, but that it was “commonly used” by Pagans. In fact, that circle casting is in the 1989 edition of The Spiral Dance, attributed to Victor.* This same Winter Solstice ritual book included a rather fiercely worded statement promising doom and litigation heaped upon the head of anyone who violated their copyright.


First, let me lay out what the law says on the subject. Copyright quite unambiguously resides with the originator of the work, unless and until he or she explicitly transfers it to someone else or intentionally releases the rights generally, from the moment of creation on until seventy years after the author's death. Period. The author does not have to do anything to register the material; he or she does not have to pay a fee or take out a license. It includes all forms of distribution, and the act of distribution does not cede any rights. That is to say, just because someone hands you a printed copy of something, or says it in public, or posts it on the Internet, it does not belong to you.

On the other hand, copyright protects specific creative or intellectual works; ideas can't be copyrighted. There is also such a thing as “fair use,” which means you may include excerpts of something for commentary or educational purposes, and you may also create parodies or responses. There are actually precedents also for dealing with a body of lore that is common property while protecting specific creative responses based on it. We will return to that later.

Let me be clear: if you print or redistribute something that someone else wrote without their permission, that is a violation of their copyright, regardless of whether the material was previously published, the circumstances under which you acquired the material, or whether you like them or not. That kind of casual thievery is rampant in the Pagan community, and there have also been instances within the Feri Tradition of initiates printing or otherwise distributing material without the author's permission and without attribution.

Sometimes, people just don't know where something comes from. And yet...like the first example I gave, it's not actually that hard to find out. An initiate of the tradition certainly has the resources to find out who really wrote something, if motivated to do so. There's a certain amount of shame, not to mention pure stupidity, associated with stealing from one's co-religionists, particularly when they have a reputation for being badass witches. ** You'd think no one would want to do that. Yet they do. Why?

In the larger Pagan community at least, I think it's attached to an often unhealthy desire to perpetuate the myth of Ye Olde Hoary Crafte Handed Down Unmarred From the Mists of Antiquity, which just happens to look exactly like its modern incarnation and to fit modern sensibilities. There are two problems with this: One, there IS some genuinely old stuff out there, that gets ignored because it's not as suited to people's expectations, and two...It's bullshit.

Sometimes the motive for perpetuating that myth is simply sentimental softheadedness. Sometimes, it's a much more problematic desire to assert authority by claiming an ancient lineage. That is certainly the motive of people like Bill Wheeler, who founded Y Twyleth Teg and later Dynion Mwyn; he claims to be the inheritor of a two-thousand-year-old unbroken lineage of “Welsh witchcraft,” and in order to bolster that claim has swiped material from all kinds of places, including Hinduism*** and Feri. YTT's website at one time had Feri material posted and even a Feri ritual that still included stage directions with the participants' names, Cora among them.

There seems to me to be a serious problem with rooting your spiritual practice in deceit, either deliberately perpetrated on others or of the self-imposed variety.

Within Feri, the tendency to treat all Feri material as common and anonymous property sometimes seems tied to a desire to give people a lot of stuff, so they'll feel they are getting something; we are a creative and voluble bunch, and have generated a lot of stuff over the years. But that's a chimera. The fact is, the core of the tradition is very, very simple. You just do the same things over and over until something happens. That's it. All the elaborate lore is secondary...and sometimes, in my opinion, actually counterproductive. Also glossing over or conflating who wrote what can serve to promote a certain version or vision of Feri in a kind of Foucaultian power grab, one that alters perception by controlling the discourse. It's a fact that what lots of people think Feri is, is not what many of us actually practice. Feri is like an iceberg; 90% of it is under water.


Sometimes people presume that because we are talking about spiritual matters, the authors ought to be willing to share. Often, they actually are willing, if asked. But there's a very big difference between giving your work to the community, and having people take it without asking. I would also like to add here, as an aside, that I have a copy of The Sacred Harp, a Christian hymnal that has material in it going back to the seventeenth century. I can read in it that the tune to “Windham. L.M.” was written by Isaac Watts in 1707, and the words by Daniel Read in 1785. If they can keep up with that, why can't we?

The attitude of entitlement towards liturgy and music and other work which I've discussed has a chilling effect on the those who contribute...to Feri, or to the larger Pagan community. Typically, people have more than one good song or poem in them; if you haven't heard much from someone in a while, it may be because you didn't treat what they gave you with respect. I'm a published writer, and there are things I've written which I've shared, but many other things I keep mostly to myself. Contrary to what some people seem to think, the mere fact that you want to use something I wrote is not such a compliment that I'll gloss over you trying to lay claim to it.


In Feri the issue is complicated by the fact that we have a body of material passed down from Victor and others which is effectively common property; it does not belong to any one of us, but to all of us. However, as I mentioned there is a precedent for that. I am a member of the Southern Order of Storytellers, and many of the stories that people tell are old folk and fairy tales. The stories themselves belong to no one. However, the telling...the particular way a person tells that story, all of the flourishes and particular words...are considered to belong to the teller. You can tell any story you want. But if you want to tell a story the particular way someone else tells it, it is customary to ask that person's permission. This works surprisingly well as a system...partially because everyone knows that if you steal someone's telling, other people will notice. It's also not ever ok to put someone else's story into print. There's an awful lot of Feri liturgy that has been passed around, and I'm not suggesting at all that people stop using it. It was absolutely intended to be used by the people who wrote it. What I am saying is that people shouldn't be publishing it, or teaching it for money, without the original author's permission, and when passing material to students should find attribution where they can. Aside from the fairness of it, there's a lot of material that has gotten muddled and mis-attributed over the years. Clarifying who wrote what will cause future generations to bless you. Being clear and honest about it would go a long way towards healing some of the mistrust that has grown up among members of the tradition; I know for a fact that there are a number of initiates who do not share material with the tradition at large because they simply don't feel they can trust other people to be ethical with it, either to keep it confidential if that's what the originator wants or to attribute it properly. That tends to stifle growth and development of the community, because the people who have the most personal stake in their work become less and less willing to share it, and the kind of cohesion, communication, and collegial atmosphere that marks a mature and functional intellectual and religious community cannot ever emerge.



*Starhawk commits nearly the same offense by giving versions of the Guardian calls which she describes as “paraphrased from traditional Faery castings.” In fact the originals were written by Steve Hewell.


**Lots of people seem to believe firmly in their own power, but not in other people's. I leave the logical problem there as an exercise for the reader.


***According to Wheeler's book The Quest, both karma and chakras were very important to the ancient Welsh.





This is a very important issue that is not broached often or clearly enough. Thank you.

Thanks for the detailed copyright info.

I think you've put your finger on the biggest reason why people don't want to share.

I've seen some of my own writings published and listed as traditional (or even "ancient traditional"). One of these, an article on Pagan etiquette, has been re-published (with my permission) on several Pagan websites, but also appears in many convention and festival program books either without attribution or mis-attributed (usually to Selena Fox or Diana Paxson). In some cases, it has been improved and expanded along the way: I say this without irony--so far, all the new materials I've seen in it are useful and insightful, clearly based on wisdom gained from experience. I'm not sure who provided the improvements--probably several people.

I'm tickled that the article has proven so useful: it's the one clear contribution I can point to that I've given the Pagan community. And while I would appreciate correct attribution, I look at the changes that have been made to it, and I see that it is now really the work of several authors. I don't know who the other authors are. The folk process--that is, the process by which a text is handed down with different people anonymously making changes along the way--seems to be taking it and MAKING it traditional.

Is a text truly "traditional" only when all knowledge of authorship has been lost?

In the context of the Pagan revival, "traditional" usually seems to mean that a text has been handed down, with or without attribution, to more than one generation of students. A far cry from the use of the word among folklorists!

Thanks for this post.

Re: Thanks for the detailed copyright info.

I'd like to see that article; can you give me a link to it?

Re: Thanks for the detailed copyright info.

I think the original only exists in hard copy now (it was published in hard copy in, uh, 1987 I think, under the pen name Sagana). I will try to scare it up for you. Would you prefer to receive hard copy, or should I post it?

Re: Thanks for the detailed copyright info.

Posting it would be delightful and appreciated :)