Public Domain Hymns

Hymns in the public domain are hymns that have passed through the legal copyright period and now belong in every way to the public. Anyone may arrange, copy, distribute, sell, publish, translate, or otherwise use public domain hymns. Public domain hymns may not be re-copyrighted. However, a new arrangement, translation, or version of a public domain hymn may be copyrighted if it results in a substantially new work. Including a public domain hymn in a copyrighted collection does not change its public domain status. Current USA copyright law (2005) places hymns created in the year 1922 or earlier in the public domain. Hymns created in the year 1923 or after will remain under copyright protection until at least the year 2048.

Hymns consist of three elements: text, melody, and harmony. Any or all of these may be individually copyrighted.

  • TEXT: The copyright may cover the original text, a translation, or an adaptation.
  • MELODY: The melody is the tune that is used for singing the words.
  • HARMONY: The harmony is the combination of voices or accompaniment voices that support the melody. This is also known as the setting or accompaniment.

The published hymn usually includes a copyright clause at the bottom of the page that spells out which of these elements are copyrighted. The clause may cover WORDS, TEXT, TRANSLATION, or some other text element. It may cover MUSIC, TUNE, MELODY, SETTING, ADAPTATION, or some other musical element. It is important for the user to determine what portion of the hymn is copyrighted, if any. Hymns in the public domain have no copyright for any of these elements.

Different elements of the hymn (text, melody, harmony) may be copyrighted by different copyright holders. If the words are copyrighted by one owner and the music by another, permissions must be obtained from both copyright holders before using the hymn. If the words are copyrighted, but the music is public domain, then only the music may be freely copied.

Final word of caution: These guidelines apply only to copyright law in the USA. There are other laws and legal conventions that apply in other parts of the world. This article should not be taken as authoritative legal advice. It is the sole responsibility of the user to verify the copyright status of any work and to follow the copyright law.

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