You are visiting another church for the first time, and they start singing a familiar hymn, but the words are different from the ones you know. Then someone gets up to read Scripture. You have a pocket Bible, but what they read is entirely different than what is in your Bible, even though it is supposed to be the same translation. Perhaps they wanted to make the wording more “contemporary” or “inclusive,” but that doesn‘t seem right.
It doesn’t seem right because it is actually illegal.
Now imagine that you decide to become a Christian musician. You spend a lot of time composing music and writing lyrics, and you put a copyright on the fruit of your labor. Then, to your delight, your music becomes very popular. You quit your day job because you can make a living by licensing your music to publishing houses and recording studios.
However, one of your songs becomes so popular that people perform it, write new lyrics and new arrangements for it, but they don’t get permission, they don’t include your copyright notice, and they don’t pay licensing fees. You feel really good about your music being so popular, so you let it slide.
Then one day, you are thumbing through a new hymnbook in a bookstore, and you find your song! You imagine that they will send you a large check, because the hymnbook is very popular and they are making thousands of dollars, in part by selling your song. You are giddy with excitement! You call them up and ask when you will receive a check. They say, “Oh, so that’s who wrote that song, we wondered who that was.”
There won’t be a check. Since you let your song go into the public domain, you no longer own it, and they don’t have to pay you.
You give up on your musical aspirations in disgust, and tell yourself that if this happened often enough to enough people, there would be no professional songwriters or musicians—and you’d be right.
Recently, a political campaign used copyrighted music without permission and was slapped with a lawsuit. The copyright holder wasn’t being mean, they wanted to continue making money from their work. There is no copyright police, so only way to enforce a copyright is through civil lawsuits.
Political campaigns are not the only transgressors; churches have gotten into trouble also. Edelweiss, for example, is a very lovely song from The Sound of Music, which was an extremely popular movie. Some years ago, someone put Christian lyrics to the melody, and it became a run-away favorite in a large number of churches, and it was even printed in collections of songs and hymns. The copyright holders put a stop to it, making the point that the music could not legally be used without the lyrics, and the lyrics could not legally be used without the music, and none of it could be used without permission from the copyright holders. The churches, probably very embarrassed, stopped using the music.
Music is just an example. These principles apply to any copyrighted work, such as any copyrighted magazine article, poem, essay, or Bible translation. You might be surprised that anyone would copyright a Bible translation, but translators need to eat, too. Also, the copyright allows them to prevent people from editing their text and deceptively publishing it under the same name.
Walking on the Dark Side
Since there is no copyright police, you could change hymn lyrics, add stanzas, adapt Scripture readings, and use them in your congregational worship and without getting permission, without the copyright holder ever finding out. Most often this is an innocent mistake in congregations that do not understand copyright law but want to make things “contemporary” or adapt them to “inclusive language.” You might get away with it for a long period of time, but it is wrong, and you should have a higher standard of honesty and ethics than that. No amount of noble goals and good intentions can override the law and the copyright holder’s rights.
If It Is Very Old, It Might Still Be Copyrighted
Eventually, copyrights expire, and when that happens, the copyrighted works go into the public domain, but that process is slower than you might think. Just because the composer or lyricist is dead, it doesn’t mean their work is in the public domain. A copyright is intellectual property, and like any other kind of property, the owner can sell, donate, or bequeath it to anyone they choose, or if they die without doing any of those things, it belongs to their estate.
Recent changes in copyright laws and international treaties have extended the duration of copyrights. In the United States, copyright holders of older works can renew the registration. Newer copyrights are valid for as long as 120 years.
I said “in the United States” for a reason. Individual countries can grant copyrights for longer periods of time. For example, if you live in a British Commonwealth country, the Authorised Version (the King James Version) is under a Crown copyright, which never expires.
The Episcopal Church of the United States deliberately put the Book of Common Prayer in the public domain, so you can freely use it and adapt it to your needs.
Just because a hymn is in an tattered old songbook dated before your grandmother was born, don’t presume that it is in the public domain! You’d be surprised to find out how many “old” hymns are still under copyright.
Since works that are in the public domain are available for anyone to use without restriction, it is possible for someone to take, for example, a public-domain hymn, tweak the melody, give it a different arrangement, and create new lyrics for it—and copyright the result. You might be familiar with the second, copyrighted version and confuse it for the earlier, public-domain version. So you should always check.
About the Lyrics of Hymns…
Public Domain Hymns
In this scenario, you have done your homework, and you have determined that a hymn is definitely in the public domain.
I recommend against modifying the lyrics of public-domain hymns to modernize them or put them into inclusive language. People who are accustomed to the original lyrics might be offended, or they might be singing right along and get thrown off by a surprise booby trap in the lyrics. Anyway, such alterations are technically forgery. Why not write completely new lyrics?
If a song or hymn is under copyright, modifying or replacing the lyrics, or even adding a stanza, is illegal—unless you write to the owner of the copyright and get permission.
If you have one copy of a hymnbook, you have one copyright license. If you have one hymnal but thirty people in your choir, you cannot run off 30 photocopies so they can all sing. You cannot make 30 copies of just the lyrics, either. If you buy 30 hymnbooks, you have 30 copyright licenses. If you need to accommodate five more people, buy five more hymnbooks. Suppose you have an outdoor sunrise service. You don’t want to take the hymnbooks outdoors, so you can make as many photocopies as you have hymnbooks—no more. Use the copies outdoors while the hymnbooks remain unused in the church. After the service, destroy the copies.
To find out if a hymn is under copyright, and to get permission if it is, you can contact a clearing house such as One License.
About Bible Translations and Other Printed Works…
In the interest of honesty, don‘t misrepresent documents, even if they are in the public domain. Forgery and misrepresentation are just as improper, or even illegal, as plagiarism. Quote published documents, including Bibles and texts from the Bible, as printed, even if the documents are centuries old. If you say, for example, that a popular public-domain Bible translation says ABC, but people look it up and find that it really says ABD, you rightly lose credibility. If the wording doesn’t suit you, disclose that you are paraphrasing it, or read it as it is and then briefly expound on your objections and corrections. You could also find a different published version or translation that does meet your needs.