Aren’t Christmas Songs Exempt from Copyright Infringement?

Planning special Christmas programs can be overwhelming and time-consuming. When it comes to music licensing, it’s often hard to understand what is covered by blanket licenses and what individual licenses you need to obtain directly from publishers and record labels.  

We’ll try to simplify the licensing process for you by unpacking some common myths. Here’s the truth about THREE MYTHS to help give you confidence and peace of mind as you work through the checklist for your holiday productions.

MYTH # 1 – Public Domain Songs Require Licensing

TRUTH: Songs that are in the public domain essentially have no owner. You can do anything you want with them without the need to obtain permissions, licenses or pay royalties. This does not apply to copyrighted arrangements of a song in the public domain.

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),” which was then copyrighted as a new work.

There are many popular Christmas songs that are copyrighted and NOT in the public domain. They will require permission, licensing or exemptions. Download our FREE Fact Sheet that lists the most popular copyrighted holiday tunes.

MYTH # 2 – We’re Exempt…Christmas Programs Don’t Require Licensing

TRUTH: With the exception of the Religious Service Exemption, the legal requirements for use of copyrights by non-profit religious organizations are pretty much the same as any business or organization. There are some other possible exemptions or limitations, such as the non-profit concert exemption and aspects of Fair Use, but they apply to any type of organization and are not specific to just churches or non-profit religious organizations. So, a Christmas program that is not part of the church’s religious service is not exempt and will require performance licensing. Plus, the Religious Service Exemption does not apply to broadcasting or online streaming of your service.

When it comes to misunderstandings about the Copyright Law, there’s a lot of confusion regarding Fair Use and the Religious Service exemption. There aren’t many exceptions or exemptions to the U.S. Copyright Law, but churches can really benefit from the religious service exemption in the law (Section 110[3]) if they fully understand it. Download our FREE Fact Sheet on the Religious Service Exemption.

MYTH #3 – Copyright Licensing Is Too Expensive

TRUTH: Blanket licenses are easy and cost effective. Many church leaders believe that performance licenses are difficult and expensive to maintain, but this is not true. CCS has partnered with the PROs to offer two licenses that cover more than 20 million songs from ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC to make licensing simple and affordable. The PERFORMmusic facilities license (starting at $229) provides churches and ministries with a license for the performance of live and pre-recorded music in their facilities, including satellite campuses. The WORSHIPcast streaming license allows churches and ministries to webcast their performances of the same 20 million songs (and starts as low as $225).

CCS has partnered with the three U.S. performance rights organizations (PROs) to create a simple one-stop licensing solution for both ONSITE (in your facilities) and ONLINE (streaming on your websites). The PROs have lowered the annual fees to make the licenses affordable for non-profit religious organizations. Both PERFORMmusic and WORSHIPcast licenses cover more than 20 million songs from ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC and represent Christian, holiday and secular songs from all genres.

What is the impact of the catalog size? Well, if the song that you want to use is not in the catalog, you can’t stream it without getting additional licensing from the song’s owner. Getting this additional permission can take weeks and would cost additional money. Scrimping on catalog size will save some money upfront, but it will also limit what songs you can include in your webcast or require you to spend additional time and money to use songs that are not in the catalog. This can become an important issue when performing holiday, pop or special music outside of Christian song catalogs.

Annual church blanket licenses make it so much easier, simpler and more affordable than trying to obtain permissions from individual song owners. If you have questions or would like more information, call 1-855-576-5837 or chat live with one of CCS’s copyright experts by clicking on the bottom left-hand corner of our website.

CCS’s Founder and CVO, Susan Fontaine Godwin is an educator and long-time member of the Christian arts community with 30 years of experience in the Christian media industry, church copyright administration, and copyright management. Susan is an author and speaker and frequently writes for several Christian magazines and online publications. She serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Mobile.

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 TwitterFacebook, and YouTube. The information contained herein is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel.