How long does copyright in a song last and when does it become Public Domain? Guest post from CCLI

Continuing our series of guest articles by CCLI, this week we look at copyright in relation to songs.

Copyright is an intellectual property right given to the creators of original musical, literary and dramatic works. Different countries have different laws in regard to copyright. In the U.S. the foundational copyright laws were established with the Copyright Act of 1976. In the U.K. the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 is the current legislation. These acts provide the creator with two main rights:

  • Economic: this allows the creator to charge anyone who wishes to copy, perform or record their work for any commercial or non-commercial use.
  • Moral: this allows the creator to protect their work from any change which might be considered offensive or not in keeping with their wishes.

Copyright in a song

In the U.S. and within Europe, copyright in a song lasts for 70 years after the end of the calendar year in which the last surviving writer dies. A song which is no longer protected by copyright is described as being Public Domain (PD).

Where words and music have been written separately, it’s probable that copyright exists independently in the words and in the music. This means the words will become PD 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last surviving writer of the words dies, and the music will become PD 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last surviving music composer dies. CCLI’s SongSearch website is a helpful tool in finding the copyright information for a particular song in CCLI’s global catalogue and will help you to compare the copyright information for different versions of a song.

Can we make changes to a song?

Under copyright law, until a song is PD, only the copyright owner has the right to amend or change their work in any way. 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.

Only once a song is PD may it be freely adapted, arranged and translated. Where significant changes have been made to the original song, the adaptor of the PD song may claim a new copyright in that adaptation. If you wish to adapt a song that is PD, always check that neither the words nor the music are already an adaptation/arrangement of a PD song for which a new copyright exists.

Copyright in sound recordings

Following a recent change in UK law, copyright in a sound recording now lasts for 70 years from the end of the year in which it was made.

Copyright in songbooks

A separate typography right exists in the typeset page (including electronic formats). In the U.K. this lasts for 25 years from the date that the edition was first published. This means you would need permission (often via a copyright licence) to scan or make photocopies of songs within a publication that is less than 25 years old even if the songs themselves are PD. To photocopy a song from a hymn book, you therefore need to check that copyright in the words, the music and the typography have all expired, or that you have permission to reproduce those parts which are still in copyright.

Copyright-free works

Occasionally the owner of a song or other creative work will choose to allow its free use meaning you would not require any direct permission or the cover of a copyright licence to reproduce it. Where this is the case the copyright line or ‘non-Proprietary data’ should clearly show that the work is ‘Copyright Free’.

What’s Fair Dealing and can it apply to churches?

Fair Use in the U.S. and Fair Dealing in the U.K. are similar exemptions within the respective Copyright Laws for works to be used or reproduced for the purposes of private study and research. Although there is no strict definition of when this could apply, it is unlikely that the reproduction of songs in worship would come under the scope of Fair Use/Fair Dealing.

For further information visit CCLI’s website.

Other articles in this series

Why do we have to pay to play songs in worship?

How do I copyright my songs and how does CCLI know what is sung in church?