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Hymns, Public Domain, and Copyright

When does a hymn become public domain?
When may I copy a hymn from the hymnal?
When is a hymn no longer copyrighted?

(Please note: Information contained in this article should not be considered to be legal advice about copyrights and permissions. Neither Discipleship Ministries nor the author accepts any responsibility or liability for how you use or apply this information. It is intended only as a brief explanation. Seek authoritative counsel from a qualified attorney.)

Copyright law is complex, difficult to understand, and next to impossible for the layperson to confidently apply in daily work. But as church musicians and worship leaders, it is our responsibility to work within this law. Our failure to do so may result in legal action, large fines, and public embarrassment. What follows is the most basic principle of the current law, which was enacted in 1976 and amended in 1998. It is not intended as authoritative in all matters, but it may be helpful in understanding and applying the law on a very basic level. Information here has been taken from the U. S. Copyright Office's web site at http://www.copyright.gov.

How Long Does Copyright Last?
(Be sure to read the provisions of the 1998 amendment before applying the 1976 law's provisions.)

  1. For works created after January 1, 1978, copyright lasts until 70 years after the author dies.
  2. For works for hire created after January 1, 1978, copyright duration is 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.
  3. For works created before January 1, 1978, but not published or registered by that date, copyright will be the same as for works created after January 1, 1978. However, in no case will the copyright for these works expire before December 31, 2002; and for works published before December 31, 2002, the expiration will not be before December 31, 2047.
  4. For works created and published or registered before January 1, 1978, the original copyright was for a first term of 28 years. During the 28th year, the copyright was eligible for renewal for a second term of 28 years. However, the 1976 law extended the second renewal term to 47 years. Thus, if a publisher or copyright holder renewed the copyright for a second term, the total life of the copyright would have been 75 years (28 + 47). If a copyright holder failed to renew for the second term, however, the copyright period would end after the first 28 years.
    1. The 1998 amendment to the 1976 Copyright Act further extended the renewal term of copyrights still existing on October 27, 1998, for an additional 20 years, thus giving all music protected by copyright on that date a total of 95 years protection from their original copyright date.
    2. Public Law 102-307, enacted on June 26, 1992, automatically renewed the original term of copyrights secured between January 1, 1964, and December 31, 1977. Thus, for works copyrighted within this period, even if the copyright holder failed to renew the second term, renewal was granted; and the full 95 years protection is applied.

Two Examples

  1. Let's consider an example. The hymn "Great Is Thy Faithfulness," number 140 in The United Methodist Hymnal, was originally copyrighted in 1923. If the copyright had not been renewed, it would have entered the public domain after its first 28-year period of protection after 1951. However, the copyright for this hymn was renewed in 1951 by Hope Publishing. Under the old law, its copyright would have expired after the second 28-year period; that is, after 1979. But because of the 1976 law, the copyright extends an additional 19 years, for a total of 75 years, until after 1998. And because of the 1998 amendment to the 1976 law, protection is extended an additional 20 years. Thus, "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" will not enter the public domain until after the year 2018.
  2. Let's consider a second example. The hymn "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus," number 349 in The United Methodist Hymnal, was originally copyrighted in 1922, one year before the copyright date of "Great is Thy Faithfulness." The original copyright (28 years) and second renewal (47 years) expired in 1997. Since this expiration is prior to the October 27, 1998, deadline of the 1998 amendment to the 1976 law, the amendment's additional 20 years of copyright protection does not apply to this hymn; therefore, it entered the public domain after 1997.

To determine the current copyright status of any hymn or song, you need to know the following:

  • Date of creation
  • Date of copyright
  • For works created before January 1, 1978, whether or not copyright was renewed for a second term.

In addition, you may find it helpful to contact the publisher or copyright holder personally for help or information. CCLI members will also find information, resources, and assistance from CCLI — web site: http://www.ccli.com; telephone: 1-800-234-2446.


Keep in mind that the following often-given excuses for illegally copying hymns or songs will not hold up in court:

  1. It's from our own denominational hymnal.
  2. We have a CCLI (or other) license.
  3. We want only to copy the words.
  4. We're a church and want to use the hymn in our worship services.
  5. We're a Sunday school class, and want to study this hymn in our class.

None of the above will legally keep you from paying a fine if you are caught. In certain limited cases, for certain hymns, numbers 1 and 2 may allow you to legally reproduce portions of the hymns (never choral, instrumental, handbell, or other arrangements, however). Numbers 3-5 are never reasons for you to feel free to use copyrighted material without permission. It is always your responsibility to make certain your use is within the law.

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