There is a lot to think about when it comes to copyright, so perhaps you breathe a sigh of relief when discovering worship music that is in the public domain. However, being certain that a song or other work is truly in the public domain can sometimes prove challenging.
Stanford University Libraries offers an extremely helpful explanation of public domain: “The term ‘public domain’ refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it.” (You can find more helpful information here: https://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/public-domain/welcome/)
A Few Important Points About Copyright
Copyright is a form of intellectual property law and is designed to protect works of authorship under any type of artistic medium. In the case of sacred music, this would of course include texts, melodies, accompaniments, and other musical or text arrangements. No matter what form the work takes, it must be a fixed, tangible medium — you cannot copyright an idea.
In most cases, music and text end up in the public domain because their copyright has expired, the copyright holder has decided not to renew the copyright, or the composer / author has intentionally placed the music or text in the public domain rather than copyrighting it.
How Can I Tell If a Work Is Public Domain?
A good place to start when determining whether or not a work is in the public domain is to take a look at the composer, author, and any copyright information that is listed on the original hymnal page or musical score. Different hymnals or collections may put the individual copyright information in different places (for example, directly on the page or score, or in an appendix at the back of the resource), so be sure to check carefully.
In most parts of the world, works enter the public domain 70 or more years after the death of the creator. The number of years varies somewhat for different regions. For example, our License Holders in Canada and New Zealand may find that certain pieces are considered public domain after only 50 years, while some unpublished works may not enter the public domain until 75 years after the creator’s death.
Also keep in mind that copyrights can be renewed, so it is important to pay attention to any listed copyright information as well. Again, looking at the details listed in the original score is a great starting point to help you determine whether the work is public domain. As an example, here is a version of “Silent Night, Holy Night” downloaded from the ONE LICENSE database.
You are likely aware that this particular hymn is public domain, but if you did not already know that was the case, here’s how you would be able to tell:
- There is no copyright or publisher information listed (meaning no one currently holds a copyright on the piece).
- The years of death given for the text and music creators are both more than 70 years ago.
Given this information, you can be certain the tune and text are public domain and can be used freely without copyright permission.
Note: Keep in mind that a claim to copyright may not always be on the same page as the printed music; sometimes it is found in the front or back of a collection, on another page of an individual work, or in an appendix at the back of a larger resource (such as a hymnal). If you look everywhere and do not find a claim to copyright, then it is reasonably safe to assume that the work is in the public domain. General terms like “Traditional,” “Spiritual,” “Irish Folk Song” etc., also typically imply that a piece is in the public domain.
All of that being said, you might also encounter works where the text is public domain but the tune is copyrighted (or vice versa), so be sure to check each part of the work when trying to determine whether any permissions are needed.
Finally, you must determine whether a piece is an arrangement of a public domain title. While the original tune and text may be in the public domain, the arrangement may be under copyright, in which case you would need to obtain permission to use the arrangement and would also report usage for royalty distributions. For example, composer Tony Alonso created an arrangement of the public domain piece “How Firm a Foundation” for his Revival series. Since the reprint box (text / melody) that you or your music director would share with your congregation is the public domain text and tune (SKU 92216), no reprint permission is needed. However, if you are including this arrangement in your posted service online, you would need permission to use the music arrangement and you would also need to report usage for the arrangement (SKU G9464).
Tony Alonso’s arrangement of “How Firm a Foundation” is an example of a copyrighted arrangement of a public domain piece that you can report your usage of through the ONE LICENSE database. If you look closely at those types of entries, you will likely find that the arrangement or alternative version of the work is under copyright. In other words, you must look at all of the parts (text, tune, and arrangement) when determining copyright, and no reporting is necessary as long as all of the parts are in the public domain. Otherwise, any part that is under copyright must be reported.
Other Helpful Hints to Consider
- If the work you are using is in a hymnal or other collection of multiple works, you will want to be certain that you are checking the copyright information for the individual piece itself, not the copyright for the full hymnal or entire song collection.
- If a work is out of print, that does not necessarily mean the work is public domain. If you would like to use an out-of-print work that is under copyright, we encourage you to contact the copyright holder directly for permission.
- If you are unable to find a work in the ONE LICENSE database, this does not mean the work is public domain. If the work is copyrighted by one of our Member Publishers, we encourage you to fill out a manual submission through ONE LICENSE so the Member Publisher can review the piece. Alternatively, you can contact our Member Publishers directly for clarity on their copyrights.
- Our partners at Hymnary.org have great information on copyrights, and many of our License Holders use their data as an “encyclopedia” of sorts! You may also find that Google (or any other search engine) can be extremely helpful in determining if a work is in the public domain. Even if your search reveals that the work is not public domain, it will likely give you information on the copyright holder, which will help you to find the work in the ONE LICENSE database or provide you with the necessary information to fill out a manual submission. If you believe the work is public domain, but are still unsure after trying the suggestions above, you can reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we are happy to assist!
While the task of researching whether a work is public domain might seem a little daunting at times, please know that we understand everyone is doing their best and the ONE LICENSE Team is here to support you and your ministries!
Photo copyright: cottonbro. This image is available for download at www.pexels.com.
Quote above from Stanford University Libraries, full article can be found here: https://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/public-domain/welcome/
Silent Night, Holy Night. Text: Joseph Mohr, 1792-1849; tr. John F. Young, 1820-1885 Tune: STILLE NACHT, Franz X. Gruber, 1787-1863. Public Domain.