November 16, 2013

There are many common copyright myths circulating in church circles, and one of them is that ALL Christmas songs, carols or hymns are in the public domain and don’t require licensing or permission. It’s a misconception that could prove costly for churches unless they understand that many Christmas tunes are copyrighted and owned by secular music publishers. 

For example, churches often sing, record, stream, print songs like “White Christmas,” and “Frosty the Snowman,” and don’t realize they need licensing or permission to do so. In addition, most of these secular songs are not covered by church blanket licenses like CCLI. However, they are included in performance licenses like CCS’s PERFORMmusic and WORSHIPcast.

Let’s start with the good news and talk about the songs that are in the public domain and what you can do with them.

Songs that are in the public domain essentially have no owner; or the term on a copyright has expired and now belongs to the public domain.

You can do anything you want with them without the need to obtain permissions, pay royalties, or credit the original author (although it’s always a good thing to cite the author). This does not apply to copyrighted arrangements of a song in the public domain. You’ll need to check your source and if you use the same copyrighted the arrangement of the public domain song, then you’ll need licensing and/or permission.

If a song is in the public domain, you can make any changes you want to it, including changing lyrics, or adding a verse or chorus. You can also set new music to existing public domain lyrics or text. A great example of adapting or modifying a public domain song, is Chris Tomlin’s contemporary adaptation of “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone).”

If you have created an adaptation from a public domain song, it’s easy to protect and register your new copyrighted work through the INDIEadmin online copyright administration service. You can also copyright your unique arrangements of public domain songs.

If you have questions about what Christmas songs are NOT in the public domain, here’s a list of some of the most popular ones. If you want to play, perform, record, stream or reproduce these songs, you must obtain permission or licensing to do so legally.

About Christian Copyright Solutions: CCS’s quest is to help churches and Christian ministries “do music right.”  CCS is an expert on church music copyrights and our primary focus is providing licensing and clear educational resources to churches, as well as representation, administration and advocacy for copyright owners. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook. The information contained herein is for informational purposes only, and is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel.

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