Gurdjieff International Review

Copyright Conventions in an Unconventional World

A Note about the Writings of Gurdjieff and his Circle

by Roger Lipsey

Some writers and editors who draw from the writings and recorded conversation of G. I. Gurdjieff and his pupils show signs of casual or willful disregard of copyright conventions. From one perspective, this concerns no one apart from copyright owners, who are free to pursue copyright violators if they so choose, and copyright violators, who are free to ignore copyright owners unless and until they are challenged. Yet this pattern of copyright violation is oddly notable. It has some element in it of self-portraiture, as if it offers an unintended but revealing reflection of features of the Gurdjieff community, broadly defined. Further, it brings to mind that book of obvious absurdities mentioned long ago by P. D. Ouspensky in In Search of the Miraculous. As you may recall, it was a Russian children’s book, showing drawings of ordinary scenes in which one or two elements were deliberately bizarre—for example, a cart with square wheels. We have here a cart with square wheels for our own generation: an immensely respected body of literature and documents, from which some fill their literary carts at will, apparently without concern for estates and ownerships whose rights are thereby infringed.

There are various short answers to the riddle of why these violations occur, none satisfactory on its own or sufficiently inclusive. For example, the ease of Web publication insulates those who publish on the Web from the procedures of book and magazine publishers, whose legal departments typically impose strict practice in copyright matters. Some Web participants are meticulous, others are not. But ease can’t fully explain the disregard of copyright conventions, of which every writer and editor is at least generally aware and can always learn more. Securing written permission from copyright owners is an unfailingly tedious process, and for this reason some Web participants and authors in print may be lazy about it. While ease and laziness must explain something, they don’t explain everything.

The Gurdjieff literary heritage consists not only in published works but also in unpublished archives in national, university, and private libraries. The copyright status of such documents is often ambiguous. For example, unpublished reports by his pupils on meetings with Gurdjieff, which quote him as accurately as possible, may by the letter of the law—or through unintentional disregard—bear the copyright of a donor pupil or the library in which the archive is deposited. Similarly, unpublished and essentially verbatim stenographic records, requested by Gurdjieff himself as a record of certain meetings, may bear the copyright of a pupil or library. But one still wonders where ownership, by the light of conscience, actually lies. Thus, in some instances literal copyright registrations may fall short as a guide to writers and editors, and conscience may provide a truer guide.

This is not the end of complications. During Gurdjieff’s lifetime and to this day, pupils have discreetly passed on to one another unpublished records of his teachings (and those of widely admired pupils). In his lifetime, such records were virtually all that existed because, as is well known, he published almost nothing and relied on some of his pupils, at the end of his life, to see to the publication of major works intended for the public. Written accounts of his talks and meetings were of immensely high value in the small community of seekers around him; perhaps oral transmission on its own was nearly unbearable, and some record had to be made. Somewhat similarly, Gurdjieff sponsored a trial mimeograph edition of his masterwork, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, which circulated among his pupils while Gurdjieff, as author, continued to revise the text toward the version eventually published in 1950. In an essentially oral tradition—until the publication of his major writings and of Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous—written records of all kinds were rare, carefully preserved, and shared only with trusted fellow-seekers.

What all this means is that the Gurdjieff community, however broadly or narrowly defined, has an element of heritage that resembles the samizdat circulated among dissident writers and readers in the former Soviet Union: informally published, precious documents passing discreetly from hand to hand. This is hardly rigorous preparation for an encounter with conventional copyright law.

Followers of the Gurdjieff teaching, like followers of many other teachings, feel intimately addressed by the founder’s writings and those of close pupils who met every test and became remarkable teachers in their own right. The writings are naturally experienced as the common property of all interested persons, a canon owned by all. They are consulted daily or weekly for private purposes; they are never all that far from the pupil’s mind; and they are freely available whenever the pupil feels prompted to read in them.

It is not too difficult to pass from this admirable intimacy with the writings to an attitude of wishing to share them with others in the same spirit: free, available, unconstrained by externals. Reading and reflection are intimate acts. So too is writing—above all, about those things that matter most to the devoted pupil or follower. And so the trajectory of the octave imperceptibly but relentlessly bends around and around again, until the admirable intimacy of daily contact with the writings is converted into incautious lawlessness.

Gurdjieff warned against what he called mixing levels: each thing at its place, he advised, thereby enabling each to sustain its nature, to be perceived with clarity, and to relate to others most appropriately. By allowing an internal sense of ownership to govern where external recognition of copyright is needed, some writers and editors mix levels.

Gurdjieff’s writings, published and unpublished, and those of his leading pupils are marvels of inspiration. What relation do they have with the mundane routines of copyright—of letters composed and sent to publishers, inquiries to librarians, fees payable, thanks for fees waived and permissions extended? Can’t we just get on with it? Can’t we publish these inspiring texts and leave the world to the worldly? When one has such generous motives, when one addresses such high matters, is it truly required to plant one’s feet on the earth of contractual relationships?

As one entertains these questions and the mix of indignation and realism they arouse, a slippery feeling comes over one, as if idealism has been overheard making a private bargain with the devil. It is true that the materials are grand, but bringing them to birth in an actual book or article in this actual world is a multifaceted discipline. The translators of the King James Version must have read galleys.

“Conscience matter,” say the Christian monastics, by which they mean issues to be resolved in the privacy of one’s own heart and mind. The Gurdjieff written heritage has conscience matter, specifically the archival records of his meetings and table talk, little of it published. To whom does this belong? From whom, if anyone, must permission be sought to publish extracts from it? It is now well known that some of these archives are preserved in the Library of Congress, and to the best of my knowledge the Library holds the copyright and grants publication rights under a general policy covering many millions of documents of all types. Does it follow from this policy that writers and editors interested in the Gurdjieff teaching can extract from this archive without further ado?

I suppose that must be so—I haven’t asked a copyright lawyer to confirm or deny. But it leaves me uneasy. Let us say that the voluminous letters you wrote to a famous friend are deposited in a public collection among that person’s papers, and let us say that the authorities responsible for the collection, upon request, routinely grant permission to publish from these papers. Then a writer whom you do not even know, fascinated by this correspondence, decides to publish it without your knowledge or consent. Wouldn’t this leave you uneasy?

It might be possible to test legally the copyright on Gurdjieff archives deposited in public or university collections among the papers of other figures, but I’m not at all sure who would want to do the testing, and I am quite sure that the process is unnecessary. Isn’t it preferable to face toward one another? This heritage throws us together.

These copyright matters give rise to yet another element in an oblique self-portrait of the Gurdjieff community—by which I mean all, everywhere, who love the teaching enough to study it practically and make it part of the inner structure of their lives. We don’t all like each other. And because we don’t all like each other, the question comes up as to whether we need to communicate on any matter whatever, including copyright. Perhaps it’s best just to let “those people” alone—whoever “those people” happen to be. Let them sink their own ships or pilot them to heaven; in any case, why seek contact, even of the most formal kind? On the other hand, is it sensible to create or prolong bad feelings between people when good or at least neutral feelings can be cultivated? Good or neutral feelings leave one more in peace to pursue one’s life and work, and surely that matters. Like Karapet of Tiflis, one can curse the whole damn town, but there may be other solutions.

Every stick has two ends, he said. The advantage of the copyright issue is that it throws us together. There really are formal copyrights. And there really are gray zones where, if copyright conventions do not satisfactorily govern, then something more powerful still may govern. This needs to be faced—but in doing so we stand to gain enormously because by facing the issues we discover each other.

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[Roger Lipsey served as an editorial manager for Triangle Editions from 1972 through 1999, and now consults with the organization on specific projects. Triangle Editions holds the copyright for G. I. Gurdjieff’s published and unpublished writings and, with the cooperation of Gurdjieff’s heirs, oversees their publication in many countries and languages worldwide.]

Copyright © 2000 Roger Lipsey
This webpage © 2000 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2000 Issue, Vol. III (2)
Revision: April 1, 2000