Copyright is an intellectual property right given to the creators of original musical, literary and dramatic works. In the UK the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 is the current legislation and provides the creator with both an economic and a moral right.
This moral right means that only the copyright owner of a song has the right to amend or change their work in any way. The right protects the song against any change which might be considered offensive or not in keeping with the wishes of the copyright owner.
Finding difficulty in how a song has been written, or concern with its theology, doesn’t give you the legal right to change the work without the permission of the copyright owner. However, the Church Copyright Licence (CCL) from CCLI does allow churches to make musical arrangements for transposing instruments, such as wind or brass instruments, where no published version is available.
Only once the words and music to a song are in the Public Domain may they be freely adapted, arranged and translated.
Where significant changes have been made to the original song, the adaptor of the Public Domain song may claim a new copyright in that adaptation. If you wish to adapt a song that is Public Domain, always check that neither the words nor the music are already an adaptation/arrangement of a Public Domain song for which a new copyright exists.
CCLI are here to offer guidance and advice. If in doubt, feel free to call them on 01323 436100 (UK) or your local office.