The Difference Between Public Domain And Copyrighted Christmas Songs

Every year about this time we start to get questions regarding holiday music. As if planning Christmas programs isn’t stressful enough, understanding which Christmas songs are copyrighted and which are public domain can complicate matters. As a refresher, public domain songs are those you can use without the need to obtain permissions, pay royalties, or credit the original author. However, this does not apply to copyrighted arrangements of a song in the public domain. Songs that are copyrighted will require permission, licensing, or exemptions.

So how do you know the difference? Aren’t all Christmas songs in the public domain? The answer, no. Many Christmas songs, carols, and hymns are copyrighted and owned by secular music publishers. The commonly held misconception that all Christmas songs, carols, and hymns are available for use without permission could prove costly for churches.

For example, churches often sing, record, stream, and print songs like “White Christmas” and “Mary Did You Know,” and don’t realize they need licensing or permission to do so. Just for fun, take a look at the list below and see if you know which songs are in the public domain and which require licensing:

Away in a Manger

Frosty the Snowman

Deck the Halls

Hark the Herald Angels Sing

Feliz Navidad

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Jingle Bells

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Silent Night

Holly Jolly Christmas

How do you think you did? Away in a Manger, Deck the Halls, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Jingle Bells, and Silent Night are all in the public domain – meaning you are free to use without obtaining permission. However, if you plan in performing, playing or streaming Frosty the Snowman, Feliz Navidad, Do You Hear What I Hear?, Holly Jolly Christmas or Santa Claus is Coming to Town you definitely want to look into music licensing.

We’ve created two great resources to help you navigate these songs.  For a complete listing, download our fact sheets, Copyrighted Christmas Songs, and Public Domain Christmas Songs, from our Learning Center. If you have any questions please call us at 877-394-5566 or chat with a live copyright expert online.

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