Copyright & Christmas Songs

Understanding public domain, copyright permissions for Christmas, church services. This article is reprinted with permission from “The Alabama Baptist”.

The melodies of beloved Christmas hymns seem to be everywhere during the holiday season, but just because the songs are familiar doesn’t mean churches and performers have unrestricted permission to sing them.

“Many of the great Christmas standards are in the public domain,” said Mike Harland, director of LifeWay Worship. That means the songs are not copyrighted and belong to the community rather than the creator.

Most traditional Christmas hymns fall into this category and can be used freely in any setting. For example, public performances of Franz Gruber’s “Silent Night,” composed in 1818, or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” written in 1863, are fine, whether sung during a Sunday morning service streamed live online, a public performance in the town square or a recording made available for sale.

However, modern arrangements of those familiar songs are a different story. A good example is Casting Crowns’ rendition of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” released in 2008, a copyrighted musical arrangement requiring appropriate licensing.

Though songs may not seem tangible like houses or other personal property, they are intellectual property for the songwriters who depend on royalties for their livelihood, said Christian Copyright Solution’s(CCS) Sheila Crocker. Collecting royalties “Almost every person who writes a song here in the United States belongs to a performance rights organization, so if the song is used in any public performance, they (the songwriters) collect the royalties,” Crocker said. “That’s how they get paid.”

Singing a copyrighted song during a worship service may be permissible under the Religious Service Exemption of U.S. copyright law. But streaming services that include copyrighted music, making copies of CDs for rehearsals, distributing recordings, printing a program, posting a song to the internet, recording a service for shut-ins or selling a DVD of a performance are not covered by the exemption, which is why churches should be careful when it comes to copyright, Harland said.

Two companies, CCS and Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI), provide blanket licenses that cover the “majority” of copyright coverage needed by churches. CCS offers blanket performance licenses, while CCLI offers a blanket copyright license to reproduce, distribute and, to a limited extent, make audio reproductions or derivative works. Christmas music is included in these blanket performance licenses. But if money is changing hands, churches and performers should assume a license is needed and take steps to get the right one, Harland said.

His advice? Call the publisher directly to ask. ‘Due diligence’ “Publishers appreciate someone taking due diligence if they’re unsure what permissions they have,” he said.

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