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October 9, 2019

Music copyright laws and licensing

New album by Catholic singer Iván Díaz


Every Sunday, millions of Catholics around the world raise their voices in song to celebrate Mass. We sing hymns and songs that become part of the fabric of our lives—“Holy, Holy” (in Heritage Mass), “Here I Am, Lord,” “On Eagle’s Wings.” Just a few of the titles that help our hearts feel the beauty of Mass—all of them protected by copyright.

“Protected by copyright?” you may ask yourself. “These are church songs.” That’s true—but they’re also intellectual property. They have been written and composed by individuals whose faith and creativity intersect to make the music of our Church.

Copyright basics

As copyrighted works, these songs are protected by copyright laws passed worldwide—federal copyright and other laws relating to music licensing. They cannot be reprinted, recorded, broadcast or transmitted without permission from the copyright administrator. Performance and distribution rights to these songs are also held by the administrator.

How long does a copyright last?

Songs composed in the United States after 1976 are protected under federal copyright law, so long as they are fixed in a tangible medium of expression (recording, sheet music, etc.) This copyright lasts for the life of the author, plus 70 years. The goal is to protect an author’s works and maintain the integrity of those works, without compromising the original intent.

For example, in the 2019 issue of Breaking Bread, “Here I Am, Lord” by Daniel L. Schutte has a copyright line beneath the printed text and tune. The copyright line looks like this:

Text: based on Isaiah 6. Text and music © 1981, OCP. All rights reserved.

Schutte composed the song and adapted the scriptural text in 1981, and he is still alive. The song is still protected by copyright and could conceivably be protected for another 100 years. This includes all sheet music, digital music and musical recordings.

Anything composed in the United States prior to 1976 falls under the 1909 law. The 1909 law protects the intellectual property for 56 years after the date of copyright. A much shorter time period than the 1976 copyright act protection. Keeping this in mind, let’s look at the copyright line for "Morning Has Broken" by Eleanor Farjeon.

Text: 55 54 Eleanor Farjeon, 1981-1965 © 1957, Eleanor Farjeon. All rights reserved. Reprint by permission of Harold Ober Associates, Inc. Music: Traditional Gaelic melody.

Eleanor Farjeon copyrighted this hymn text in 1957. Under the 1909 law, this copyright should have expired in 2015, 56 years after the copyright year. So, why is this text still protected?

The 1976 copyright act states that anything written in the United States prior to 1976 is covered under the 1909 law and is only protected for 56 years from the date of musical copyright. However, this text was composed in England. The copyright protection periods in the United Kingdom are different from the protection periods in the US.

But what about hymns like “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” or “Immaculate Mary”? These are well known, used in Mass and are also intellectual property. However, these two hymns are examples of songs which have fallen into the public domain. When a work is in the public domain, it means that the intellectual property now belongs to the public. Hymns in the public domain can be reprinted, recorded, broadcast or digitally transmitted without any sort of permission or risk of copyright infringement.

Can copyright law affect the music industry?

Yes. Recently, with the Music Modernization Act of 2018, composers and owners will begin to receive royalties through a non-profit agency working with streaming services (eg. Apple Music or Spotify). The agency will also set the rate that distributors will pay. The goal is to ensure that payment is consistent, accurate and easy to obtain.*

*These royalties are not forms of mechanical licensing as they operate across different mediums and with different payout rates.

How do we know if a song is copyrighted?

Look for the copyright line under the printed hymn. If the hymn has a copyright line that includes the ©, the hymn is still copyrighted, and you still need permission to reproduce the hymn in any way. If the copyright line beneath the reproduced hymn does not include a ©, then most likely, it is in the public domain. This is just one of the reasons why copyright offices and copyright registration are so important. Not only do they validate an artist’s ownership over a given piece, but they assure that the piece is used fairly and appropriately.

The information printed beneath “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” in Breaking Bread states the following:

Text: 87 87; Henry van Dyke, (1852-1933), alt, Music: Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827; adapt. by Edward Hodges, 1796-1867.

No copyright symbol appears in this notation. This informs the reader that the song is in the public domain.

The music editors of Breaking Bread have verified whether each song is still under copyright protection or has fallen into the public domain. Using the 1909 and 1976 US copyright laws, we can verify the status of “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” and make sure the editors are correct.

Henry Van Dyke, an American, wrote the text in 1907. Under the 1909 law, the text would have been protected until 1963. However, Van Dyke wrote the text in England not the US. So, according to the 1976 US copyright law, the text falls under the laws of the United Kingdom. The UK copyright law protects the copyright, no matter when it was written, for 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last remaining author of the work dies. The notation beneath the song informs the reader that van Dyke died in 1933. The rules state to add 70 years to the end of 1933. Therefore, the text fell into the public domain on January 1, 2004.*

*Prior to Van Dyke, the music fell into the public domain 70 years after the death of Edward Hodges because his arrangement of the Beethoven composition, “The Hymn of Joy,” extended the copyright for the music. The previous copyright expired in 1937.

These types of creative copyright laws were enacted to protect the creators of intellectual property. By formally recognizing original works of art, music or text as property, the laws have granted copyright ownership to the creators.

Why do publishers and record labels exist?

Composers and authors want their hymns sung, and this is especially true of hymns composed for Mass. The best way to get their hymns sung is to get them published by a Catholic music publisher. Composers submit their new hymns to publishers for consideration. When a hymn is accepted for publication, a contract agreement is signed which allows the music publisher to act as the exclusive publisher and licensing agent for the hymn. The composer remains the copyright owner of the hymn and will earn royalties when the musical composition is published, recorded, broadcast or licensed. The royalties provide composers with an income, which in turn allows them to continue composing brand-new music to be used in Mass.

Fun fact: Composer can even receive performance royalties any time a song is publicly performed or broadcast via the radio, tv, in restaurants, etc.

Publishers, record labels and licensing agents in the music industry work with copyright offices to protect an author’s intellectual property. A law firm can help to ensure that the use of copyrighted material does not border on infringement and that an artist is fairly compensated for their work. With publishers managing the copyrights, copyright holders (artists) can continue creating without having to constantly monitor the use of their work.

What does this mean for us?

As we sing or listen to the beautiful music that we use to celebrate Mass, we may not think about the copyright owners or the term of protection for each hymn. We just want to feel the music as it brings us closer to the Word of God.

But please remember, many hymns are copyrighted. If you wish to distribute recorded or printed versions of copyrighted hymns, you need to obtain permission from the copyright administrator.

For more information regarding copyrights, music law, federal copyright law and other related articles, please visit

You can also obtain commercial reprint permissions from OCP. Learn more.