Three things recently have once again brought to mind the use of the music of the Rodgers and Hammerstein The Sound of Music song "Edelweiss" as accompaniment for a musical benediction to conclude a worship service. First, an e-mail correspondent wrote questioning the accuracy of a previous article on The General Board of Discipleship’s web site ("Edelweiss" — A Song We Love But Must Not Abuse) explaining that such use was an infringement of copyright law. Second, in the course of unpacking boxes following a household move recently, I came across my own copy of "Edelweiss," complete with the handwritten addition of the benediction lyrics and in larger letters the instruction, "Keep in Organ Bench." Third, while using the hymnals in the pew racks of a large United Methodist church that was hosting a national worship and music conference, I noticed the benediction words pasted into the back cover of the hymnal with the instruction that it be sung to "Edelweiss." Perhaps it is time to remember the controversy from our past and to remind ourselves of the present law so that our sacred worship and civil law are not at odds.
The reply to my e-mail correspondent is quoted below in its entirety:
I've received the message you sent regarding the song "Edelweiss" and copyright protection and will try to answer. You are correct in saying that copyright is not like a patent. Although there are similarities, there are certainly differences. You may need to reconsider, however, when you say that "copyright protection does not cover someone from coming up with a very similar melody independently." There are a number of well-known and documented cases that illustrate this, perhaps the most famous being George Harrison's "composing" and The Beatles' recording of "My Sweet Lord," a very close approximation of an earlier rock and roll hit recorded by The Chiffons, I believe. The composer/writer's name escapes me at the moment. The court ruled "My Sweet Lord" to be an infringement of the copyright on "He's So Fine," and penalties were awarded and a portion of all future royalties earned. The truth is that copyright infringement occurs whenever the court says it occurs, and anyone coming up with a very similar melody is on very thin legal ice. That's why it isn't a common practice today — publishers, writers, composers, and copyright holders zealously guard their intellectual property.
In the case of the "Edelweiss" infringement, what happened was that someone whose identity is now long lost to us wrote a benediction text ("May the Lord, mighty God, bless and keep you forever") that was to be sung to the Sound of Music tune for a United Methodist Women's gathering in the 1970s. The words were freely shared with the instruction that they be sung to "Edelweiss," and this instruction was often included in church worship bulletins. Local church organists and pianists scrambled to find a copy of the Broadway show song to keep in their benches for use on Sunday morning, right along with the Doxology and Gloria Patri. Use of the song spread quickly to Christian churches of many denominations, and the text was even included in some collections.
Composer Richard Rodgers (and now his estate since his death) began contacting a few congregations that were using his music for this benediction. He informed them that the copyright on his music and Hammerstein's text were inextricably and legally joined and that by law neither the text nor the music of that song could be legally used without the exclusive presence of the other. In other words, Rodgers' music could be used only with Hammerstein's words, and Hammerstein's words only with Rodgers' music. If churches wanted to sing this benediction to his music, they must ask his permission. Making use of a well-attended press conference and continuing media coverage, Rodgers made it very clear that he would not approve of any exception to this and furthermore that he would take legal action against any group that made use of the "Edelweiss" music with anything other than the "Edelweiss" words. Rodgers was exercising his legal rights under copyright law and those rights continue today to his estate for the duration of the copyright period on this song.
The original item on our website ("Edelweiss" — A Song We Love But Must Not Abuse) was placed here a number of years ago in an effort to get this information out to local churches, pastors, and musicians who were using the tune illegally, even though out of ignorance. It, along with more extensive explanation, will remain on our site because the need to keep churches informed and out of legal difficulty is still there.