Thursday, July 29, 2010

Public domain and copyrights of secret rituals

One of the things that has cropped up in the ongoing internet discussion about secrecy is the whole issue of public domain. As a writer and a scholar (or as much as I am capable of being one), I have a different point of view on these matters than some other people do. For me, the issue of public domain is more about copyright law than it is about secrecy.

Copyright law has always been slightly fuzzy when it comes to secret societies. And the history of the secret societies is full of "revealing of the secrets" of various groups. The most interesting revelation was probably the printing of the Freemason rituals. The justification of this act was that the whistle-blowers claimed that the Freemasons were nothing more than a money making scam to line the pockets of the Master Masons.

(It is interesting that this rumor occasionally crops up in Golden Dawn circles.)

The revealing of their rituals was not nearly as harmful to Freemasonry as the legend of their response to one whistle-blowing incident---even today, they are blamed for burning down a printer's house and murdering someone (the Morgan Affair). Whether they did or not is open to debate...personally I think that they just put the fellow on a boat and forgot to give anyone his forwarding address. (For the record, the whistle-blower may not even been a Freemason; he may have conned his way into a Blue Lodge pretending to be one.)

It is the rumor of how they reacted and the inherient distrust that human beings have for secret societies that did the harm---not the actual revealing of their rituals. In the United States, an Anti-Masonic Party formed, and the Freemasons almost completely disappeared. In Europe, the Freemasons have been blamed for wars and rebellions as well as controling politics and big business.

(I am still waiting for the arrival of the Anti-Skull and Bones Party. If there is any secret society that deserves their own Anti-Society, it is the Skull and Bones.)

Of course, the flaw in the Freemasonic conspiracy theories is that often both sides of any issue have an equal number of Freemasons present. For instance, the American Revolution, and its result---the United States of America, has been considered by conspiracy theorists to be the work of Freemasons. The truth of the matter is that the British had an equal number of Freemasons serving and supporting their side. If the British would have won, it could have been argued that the British victory was the result of a Freemason plot.

In part, it is the human distrust of secret societies that makes the issue of public domain and copyright law so bloody confusing when it comes to the rituals and activities of secret societies. "If they were not up to no good, why are they keeping secrets?" The laws typically treat ritual scripts the same way that they do glaze and soap recipes---if you learn the secret, not only can you use it, you can also publish it and the secret society cannot do much of anything about it.

And secret societies have tried to do things about their secrets being published. A few years ago, one secret society trademarked their service name, and then tried to legally seize all copies of documents in various libraries and private collections pertaining to their Order claiming that because the documents had their trademarked name on them, the documents legally belonged to them. The scholars who oversaw the libraries and privates collections promptly showed this Order to the door, laughing at the foolishness of the attempt.

Scholars and journalists both are thorns in the sides of the secret societies. This is because both professions have a "fair use" loophole in the copyright law that they use to their own advantage. All it takes is one scholar or journalist declaring that there is something of interest to look at in your Order and you promptly have a problem keeping the genie in the bottle. And they firmly believe that he who has access to the documents has the right to print all the juicy bits.

Even more scary to the secret societies is that scholars and journalists do not even have to wait until the copyright expires before publishing material. All they have to be is claim some interest in the material, and weave the magic wand of "fair use." And anyone can publish material of a secret society once the copyright expires---aka the material enters public domain.

A few years ago, one Freemasonic association started to publish the rituals of some extinct secret societies. Their logic is that by publishing the material, they can prevent someone from resurrecting these particular Orders---aka they think that they can renew the copyright of the material and control it. No, once something goes into public domain, you cannot put the genie back into the bottle. It is a bluff---you cannot actually prevent someone from using material that has entered public domain. And they cannot deal with it as a trademark issue unless they resurrect the Orders themselves.

Of course, that is the big issue with the latest discussion---public domain material can be used by anyone. As long as they do not use a trademarked service name, there is nothing to actually stop them from trying to use the material. Note that I said "trying to use."

Now, given the fact that the material that has been being discussed in the latest secrecy discussion belongs/ed to an esoteric society, just having access to the material (documents) might not be enourgh to be able to use the material. Given the fact that there are seven layers to the material, and the documents only gives bits of any particular layer being talked about, there is a lot of stuff that a person would have to figure out to be able to fully utilize the material.

(Ok, I could be wrong here---one of the rumors about the material is that it is defective in this regard. I am not sure how much weight I want to give that rumor without seeing the bulk of the material with my own eyes. I have heard statements like that before about other material---stuff that I now keep under lock and key.)

Even the Crowley and Regardie material needs to be looked at in the light of the seven layer system if you want to unlock its full potential. And that brings us to how did we get to this state of having a good part of the Golden Dawn material published by the two of them. Well, sorry to say, it is the fault of a court case. Or rather two of them.

The first one involved a fraud---the Horos trial. MacGregor Mathers, for some reason allowed a woman by the name of Madame Horos, aka Swami Vive Ananda, aka Editha Jackson into his lodge; he claimed that she was the real Fraulein Sprengel, aka Soror Sapiens Dominabitur Astris. She milked him for information, then misused the rituals of Golden Dawn for her own ends---fleecing young women. At the Horos trial, a lot of the Golden Dawn ritual got read into the public record. The trial gave Golden Dawn a major public relations problem. 

(No one has ever been able to give me a good reason why Mathers' Secret Masters did not intervene and warn him about Madame Horos. I just simply do not understand the logic of allowing the Order material to be misused, and the Order being dragged though the mud.)

The second trial involving the copyrights of Golden Dawn came when the infamous Aleister Crowley decided to publish the rituals of Golden Dawn. Mathers tried to get an injunction against Crowley. Between the lack of money and the fact that large parts of the rituals were already part of the public record (thanks to the Horos trial), Mathers failed to prevent Crowley's publication of the rituals.

(At first, Crowley's publication of the material, and Regardie's later publication, did not reach as many people as most modern students of the system tend to believe. Paul Foster Case and Dion Fortune exposed more people to the material than either Crowley or Regardie did---initially that is. Later, when Crowley and Regardie's works were rediscovered, they became part of the "bible" of the modern occult revival and their influence swelled.)

It was the trials that broke any hope Golden Dawn, and later AO had of keeping their material under wraps forever. That and the mistake of letting William Butler Yeats into the Order---for some reason, having a famous poet makes the Golden Dawn a subject of academic interest (remember scholars invoke the angel of "fair use").

Advice to any Order that wants to keep their material secret: Don't get involved in court cases and never let anyone with the slightest potential to become famous or important into your system. Also do not link your Order to the Golden Dawn, for even normal protections provided by copyright law tend to be useless in the protection of the material.


Sincerus Renatus... said...

Regarding "fair use" and journalists, if they would try to have access to my files and folders I would promptly "show" them "to the door, laughing at the foolishness of the attempt."

In Licht, Leben und Liebe

Morgan Drake Eckstein said...

In your case, I think that you are safe simply because you are trying to remain on the up and up.

Robert said...

"(No one has ever been able to give me a good reason why Mathers' Secret Masters did not intervene and warn him about Madame Horos. I just simply do not understand the logic of allowing the Order material to be misused, and the Order being dragged though the mud.)"

I don't know about you but the powers that be do not always have my best short-term interests in mind. A longer term view may help resolve your question.