Warning! Understand Copyright Laws Before Rewriting Hymns

by Bobby Gilles

in Music Business,Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

When Poison, Spreading Through Their Veins hymn sheet music from hymnal, photographed by Robert CouseHere at My Song In The Night we write a lot about modern hymns, mostly focusing on lyrics but occasionally publishing articles like How To Compose Tunes For Hymn Texts. Pastors, worship leaders, songwriters and congregations have “re-tuned” themselves to the truth that many old hymns do a better job of expressing and teaching the Christian faith than many popular contemporary praise and worship songs.

So how do modern hymn tune composers copyright their works? Can you register your version of “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing” with CCLI or a performance rights organization (“PRO”) like BMI or ASCAP? What about the other fifty people who registered their version of the same Wesley hymn? And do you need to do anything, since these old hymn texts are all in the public domain?

Public Domain: Works that aren’t protected by copyright or other legal means, often because the creator and his or her immediate heirs have long since died.

First Step In Registering Your New Tune, Coupled With Old Hymn Lyrics:
Make sure the work itself is in the Public Domain. Are you sure the version of the hymn text you’re using isn’t already the work of a modern hymn writer who has revised the original lyrics? For example:

Make sure the version of a hymn text you’re working with is in public domain. You can typically do this online. ┬áStart with NetHymnal.org. You can also use Google, Bing or your favorite search engine to dig up info on your hymn title.

Public statue of judge's gavel

You can't outrun the long arm of the law if you violate copyright protection .. especially when the long arm has a gavel like this

When Does Copyright Protection Kick In? How Old Must A Hymn Be?
Any work published or registered prior to 1923 is no longer under copyright protection in the United States. So if you want to write music for a hymn from 1789, either using the original lyrics or your own revision of those lyrics, go for it. It doesn’t matter how many composers have written music for the same hymn, because no one can claim copyright on those original lyrics — you can only claim copyright on your music and your adaptation of the lyrics.

If you want to see how many versions of a hymn title are already registered, you can search government copyright records, and the catalogs of CCLI and the major U.S. PRO’s.

For any songs written (including hymn re-writes) on or after January 1, 1978, you can search the U.S. Copyright Office’s records online here.

It’s a little trickier if you want to search the U.S. Copyright records for items prior to 1978. Download this if interested:

But again, you can almost always do a simple online search to discover the authored date of a particular hymn.

So Do I Register My Version Of “Amazing Grace” Under The Title Amazing Grace?
Yes. And if you’re registering with CCLI, you will be prompted in the song registration form to explain how your version is different from any other — what about this “Amazing Grace” was actually written by you? They may also call or email you to clarify, so be prepared to give evidence of how your “Amazing Grace” is different than the standard “New Britain” tune or someone else’s copyrighted arrangement. We have had to do this with some of the songs in Sojourn’s Isaac Watts project. CCLI may request:

  1. Lead Sheet
  2. mp3 or physical CD
  3. Sheet music

What If I Combine Some Lyrics To Amazing Grace With My Own Lyrics, & Use A Different Title?
Then register it under your title. It’s not “Amazing Grace,” it’s a new song with lyrics that you were free to appropriate, since they were in the public domain (here’s an article I wrote about how Bob Dylan appropriates the work of earlier ballads into his own compositions, and an article about how I used a line from “Amazing Grace.”

In my recent list of “Top Ten Books For Worship & Modern Hymn Songwriters I listed This Business of Songwriting┬áby Jason Blume. Get this book if you’re interested in learning more about song publishing, PRO’s and copyrighting.

Gavel photo by Sam Howzit, via Creative Commons license
When Poison, Spreading Through Their Veins photo by Robert Couse-Baker, via Creative Commons license

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