Can you copyright ‘The Sacred’?

There’s been a little social media storm in the pagan community recently over a facebook post by Zsuzsanna Budapest, writer of the well-known chant ‘We all come from the Goddess’.

She’s got two issues – one is that some people have recorded her song without permission or giving her credit, which is a fair enough thing to gripe about.

The other is that people have added a verse about the God and she’s not very happy about it.  So unhappy in fact, she’s threatened to hex anyone who does it again.

She concludes her argument with the statement that her song is ‘sacred’, which left me feeling confused.

Now, I get the idea behind copyright – it protects people’s work from being claimed by others, or profited from without the original artist being paid.  In a world where art is bought and sold, this protection is needed.

However, the idea of ‘authorship’ is a relatively modern construct, and a particularly Western one. Most cultures have songs, artworks and ideas which are claimed by the entire tribe, not one individual, in most cases nobody will even KNOW who wrote, drew or designed something.  Songs and ideas that take this form are a living entity, they change, evolve and are added to as the years pass.  

The idea that art ultimately belongs to the culture it arises in is not such a ridiculous notion.  No artist could create in a vacuum, we all build on what has come before.  Even the very tools we use to create (colours, words, materials) are not our own, they are the invention of thousands of other people.  So are the styles we use, the references we make…. it’s hard to tell where our ideas start and everyone else’s finishes, to be honest.

With the Goddess song, as with so many works of art, humans did what we always do with art.  We took it on board, we added to it, it became OURS – ours to sing, add to, play with, fit in with other songs we knew. It became a living thing, in short.

Problem is, art is only yours in in our culture if you PAY FOR IT (and even then, it’s usually only partly yours, or yours for a set period of time, and with conditions attached).

Whilst we were all happily singing along, we forget the fact that it ‘belongs’ to the person who wrote it, not to us at all.  Our audacity in adding verses to it has, in fact, enraged the author to the point of threats of hexing!

The trumpeting of ‘authorship’ by the art community does seem to me to be particularly insidious, undermining a great deal of what art is meant to be about, and severely limiting us as artists and as a culture.  

Let’s be perfectly blunt here: if there was no money involved, we’d probably be a whole lot less bothered about it.  We’d be thrilled that lots of people were enjoying our work, that it had taken on a life of it’s own, that it had grown wings and flown the nest.   

Which points to some pretty shallow motives for the whole ‘I made this’ obsession – in short, we want to be acknowledged so that we can make money and bask in personal fame from our work – hardly noble causes, either of those things!  Money and fame are nice and all, but when they become the motive behind art, well….. we all know how that story ends.  They’re a nice perk, if you can get it, but they should never be a major focus.

Now, let me make it clear that, if somebody else is making money from something we created, then it’s only fair they share the money with us.  But other than that, once you put an artwork out into the world, I believe it belongs to the world (at least if you’re really lucky it does, most artwork just vanishes into obscurity).  

So, protect yourself from financial exploitation by all means, but put the damn thing in perspective!  Your art isn’t YOURS, not once you share it.  It’s bigger than that, and far more important.

To kid yourself that you can control the meaning or evolution of your art once it leaves your hands, is the ultimate self delusion.  Ask poor old Yves Klein (well, you can’t, because his distress at how HIS work was interpreted was so great, it is said to have killed him).

Which brings me back to Zsuzanna.  Her song, she says, is sacred – implying that she wrote it in honour of the Goddess, that in fact it BELONGS to the Goddess.  Since, in the words of this very song ‘We all come from the Goddess’, does that not mean the song belongs to …. well …. everyone?

All I know is that I was pretty tired of that song anyway, and her commodification of it has made it less than sacred for me.  I’ll be singing another song from now on!


Can you copyright ‘The Sacred’? — 7 Comments

  1. Anyone usually can record a piece as long as they pay the required copyright fee to the MCPS to do so. It is courtesy to first seek permission, though. This way, the originator of the work gets paid for the cover version. I have actually had to pay a fee to record my own work because it was covered by an old publishing contract, so I know the system works.

    You are supposed to make every effort to find out the originator of a work so you can credit them but this was much harder pre internet so I wouldn’t be surprised if a song like this might have occasionally been released without due credit. No excuse these days though so I’m with her on that part!

    Song publishing is three-fold for Composer, Author & Arranger. It is possible for these 3 aspects to be credited to one artist, or split. In my case, I have a publishing contract in which all 3 are held equally by myself and my 2 brothers. I also hold my own copyright on more recent solo works. There is also no legal reason why someone cannot add a verse (or other amendment) to a pre-existing work and register it themselves for copyright. If you change a piece of work, you are entitled to register your own amendments for copyright as 2nd Author / Arranger / Composer. This is how the law works and this woman is not above it.

    I’m afraid this woman, while entirely right to claim her own copyright, is more a victim of rudeness than breach of the law.

    Perhaps she needs to join the Musician’s Union who offer free and comprehensive advice on such matters to their members, ensuring all get a fair slice of the pie.
    Having said all this, it is up to everyone to work politely within the system, which is the best we have for upholding and protecting everyone’s rights, whether they invent their own music or simply perform that of others.

  2. What an interesting subject! Here in the beadmaking community we go through this a LOT, someone comes up with a particular design and someone else starts copying it and selling it causing all kinds of bother. There is a Chinese factory that literally rips off bead artists designs and mass produces them down to the tiniest details except they are poor quality and made in sweatshops.

    I had someone contact me to ask if they could use ‘my’ Goddess design in some beads. My initial response was a very protective one — protective of the design AND my income potential. It gave me a nasty feeling and I knew something was wrong. I sat with it for a while and realised what the real answer for me was. ‘My’ design is based on things from the past, I have learned and evolved this Goddess shape into my beads. BUT it is not mine, it has come to me through others and through the universe, isn’t all art like that?

    I decided that what felt right for me was to say exactly that to anyone who wanted to put this style of Goddess on their beads, and trust that they will do something to make their beads their own. I wonder if this is part of the problem, that there are those who will copy because they cannot create, and think it will be an easy way to make money (that is a whole other discussion). Other than that I think we all copy – ‘every artist is a thief’, we build on what has gone before. I believe a true artist will take something but won’t be able to just copy – it won’t feel right, because it’s not theirs. They will feel the need to change and evolve and embellish with their own creativity and so art goes on.

    I think I would be upset if I wrote a song with a particular meaning and someone took it, copied it and changed the meaning by adding something I didn’t intend. Especially if that ended up being attributed to me. But I also think the world would be a much better place if we could all just let go of things a bit.

    Having said all that I do agree with artists being paid for their art/work/music being used. Sorry for having rambled on!! 😀

  3. Very Well Said! I applaud your honesty and details in getting down to the basic premise behind such a claim, that of art authorship, etc. We are too far into the ego-driven, greed-infested motivations in our hearts to see the simple truth of the obvious: art is not art if it is not shared. And sharing Goddess’ sacred manifestations? If you want to put a “price” or “title of ownership” on that, well, that would be … a bit arrogant, don’t you think?
    Thank you for your great post! Love it!

  4. A really interesting ramble, so good to hear your thoughts from the point of view of another art form, too!

  5. As a pagan visual artist, being married to a musician, both of us trying to make a living from the things that we love and are driven to do, I have to say that I am in two minds about this whole debate.
    Partly because a debate, within the pagan community erupted, because of the reaction to Ms Budapest’s stance on working exclusively with women.
    She got cross at a particular event in the US, because people objected to her running a workshop solely for “women with a womb”, thus excluding anyone who was not born with the expected physiology i.e. transgender women.

    It seems to me, that she did not say these things about that tune until after all of that debate kicked of, so maybe, possibly, it was more like a kick back against the community, more sort of, “well thats my ball and you cant play with it now”, rather than about reclaiming a sacred piece of music she had written!

    All that aside, I do think that we have to be somewhat realistic about money, we all need it to put a roof over ours heads and food on the table, that has always been the case, but that also has to be balanced within the art so the art is not tainted or driven by the need to eat.

    I have spent years trying to work in “normal” jobs to earn a crust for the table and it drove me crazy, but in order to do work as an artist I have to take the risk that people will be generous and moved enough by what I do to support me i.e put money in my hand in exchange for what I have made. I don’t think there is any conflict with this, everyone has a skill that they barter for food and shelter, whether that be working in a factory/shop or some other place for someone else, or if they are trying to make it on their own.

    So often in the spiritual/arty side of life there is an attitude of distrust if money is involved, without the understanding of what might have gone into producing what the person is offering.
    I can tell you that you will never see a financial return on much of the hours that go into most pieces.
    I have put my work out there on the internet and some pieces have a life of their own, going on to be tattoos and on various forms of clothing and sacred things and I am very proud of that.
    Mostly people ask if they can do that and if it is for personal use and not for profit I am happy to say please do use it.
    But I have also had images taken and people claim it is their piece, I am not so happy with that.

    I think that some art work has the power to make people think and emote beyond anything the artist could have dreamed of, and that is what Art should be about.

    But it does not really mean that the artist should graciously say “Well, you have left me now, I no longer hold any claim over you, bon voyage” and wave a hanky in their general direction? as in “when they put it out into the world it no longer belongs to them”, does it really mean that?

    It is one thing for people to enjoy music, sing it around camp fires and have a fabulous community spirit, also adding their own flavour to it, which is only right and wonderful.
    But what about releasing an album of music, whether sacred or no, and that being instantly put up on a torrent site for free down load, by someone who thinks, well its out there now?

    The same holds true for a sculpture, image or piece of writing, some one replicating that with no care or thought and distributing it, how would they feel if that was taking food out of their mouth? At what point can we say it no longer belong to the artist?

    I am not sure we can say, once it is out there it belongs to the community and no longer belongs to the artist, unless the artist actually states that for themselves or is dead, only at that point do I feel it becomes a thing of and for the community, a reflection of its time, thereby becoming public property to be cherished for as long as it survives.

  6. It’s not a simple subject is it? But it really got me thinking about authorship in general!