Or at least Epilogue I. I got the idea to write to Randy Cohen, who writes "The Ethicist" column for the NYT and is published elsewhere around the land. I figured he could give me a sense of the ethics of adapting words to a song and he did. Here is the exchange between us. (I asked for and received his permission to print our exchange.) Start at the bottom, with my letter to him, if you wish. Or not.
Mr. Cohen (after I had asked his permission to reprint):
Sure. But if you do, I'd appreciate your including the Q&A I link to so my reply doesn't seem so cursory. And I hope it's clear that what I regard as ethical may flout the law (and that I am not a lawyer and do not purport to give legal advice). RC
His answer to my original question:
Coincidentally, I was just listening to the Soul Stirrers sing "Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone," suspiciously like a revised version of "Amazing Grace," and neither the Stirrers nor I committed any transgression in doing so. How would copyright law forbid illicit singing? No government agents cruise the neighborhood and arrest a guy strolling along singing his own version, Send in the Clones. Copyright can erect a legal barrier to your altering and reproducing a work. But I see no ethical objection to anyone changing any work any way they want to when they sing a hymn or read a story aloud to their kids or perform a play for their pals. Who's hurt? What if I skip the boring bits when I read a book, thus flouting the author's design. Am I guilty of something? Remember, the central purpose of copyright law is to promote creativity not to ensure that no idea is ever transformed, the objections of an author notwithstanding. What I do think worthwhile is making it clear to the singers and listeners that the work has been altered, a matter of honesty, so nobody misattributes something to the original author. I took up these issues in the column in a related question, about a Neil Simon play. Here's the link: Stage Mother-New York Times
All best, RC
Here's my original question:
On Oct 29, 2010, at 5:49 PM, email@example.com wrote:
Dear Ethicist Cohen,
As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I have encountered an ethical situation I'm not sure I know how to handle (actually, there's more than one, but this one I need your thoughts on; the others will have to wait).
A lovely little song in our hymnal is printed with its original words, which contain a phrase which is routinely changed when people in our congregations sing it. When our hymnal was in production, the editors asked for permission to change the words to the adapted and commonly sung phrase, but the composer refused to allow that change. It's such a lovely hymn that they printed it as she requested, which was fitting.
The original phrase is "may the love of God surround you" and the adapted phrase is "may the spirit of love surround you". Since we have many atheists and agnostics in our congregations, you may understand why many prefer the adapted phrase.
However, it has come to be assumed that because she requested that the original words be published, nobody should ever sing the adapted words again and there has been a certain amount of pressure exerted across the denomination either to sing only the published words or substitute another song.
Copyright laws forbid publishing adapted words without written permission of the author. They do not forbid singing adapted words, as long as they are not published. There is no evidence that I have found so far that the composer expressed any requirement that nobody ever sing the adapted words, but it has been assumed that this would be her wish.
My question would be "is it unethical to sing these adapted words, which are more theologically in line with our beliefs, if there is no documentation of any request of this kind?" If I were to hear from her heirs that this was indeed her expressed request, I would be willing to honor it. Otherwise, I am inclined to continue to use this song as adapted.
Rev. Elizabeth "Kit" Ketcham
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Whidbey Island
Blogging at: http://mskittyssaloonandroadshow.blogspot.com/
"Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed." --Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase (270)