From Matt Bassford’s excellent blog, His Excellent Word
Please Don’t Steal Hymns!
Monday, September 1, 2014
If you copy or distribute a copyrighted hymn without the copyright holder’s permission, you are breaking the law. ALWAYS ask permission before copying or distributing!
New hymns and praise songs are exciting. Nearly all of us who love the worship of God love the opportunity to “sing a new song”, and we are eager to introduce these new songs in our own assemblies and other devotional settings. This eagerness is commendable. However, we must make sure that our eagerness does not lead us to violate the law.
At the bottom of most modern hymns, there appears a notice that looks something like the following:
© Copyright 2014 by John Smith, Owner. All Rights Reserved.
It indicates that the author has chosen to copyright the hymn. Legally speaking, such a copyright notice is unnecessary. Since 1989, United States law has provided that any creative work is automatically copyrighted, whether the creator includes a notice or not. However, most hymnists include the notice anyway, to preclude the possibility of someone unintentionally infringing their copyrights. As a practical matter, it is safe to assume that any work copyrighted 1923 or later is still under copyright.
Under Sec. 106 of Title 17 of the United States Code, the copyright owner has the exclusive rights to do the following:
- “Reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords.” In other words, if you make a copy of a copyrighted hymn without the owner’s permission (whether by transcription or scanning, photocopying, etc.), you are breaking the law. If you make a recording of a copyrighted hymn without the owner’s permission, you are breaking the law.
- “Prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work.” In other words, if you change the words of a copyrighted hymn without the owner’s permission, you are breaking the law. If you rearrange the harmony of a copyrighted hymn without the owner’s permission, you are breaking the law.
- “Distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership.” In other words, if you photocopy a copyrighted hymn and pass it out at a singing without the owner’s permission, you are breaking the law. If you e-mail a PowerPoint or PDF of a copyrighted hymn to a friend without the owner’s permission, you are breaking the law.
- “Perform the copyrighted work publicly.” In other words, if you sing a copyrighted hymn in an assembly without the owner’s permission (which is presumed to be granted when the owner grants permission to copy), you are breaking the law.
- “Display the copyrighted work publicly.” In other words, if you make a PowerPoint of a copyrighted hymn without the author’s permission, you are breaking the law.
Copyright law is civil rather than criminal, so there is no prison time attached to any of these offenses. However, any of these actions gives the copyright owner grounds for a lawsuit. According to 17 U.S.C. §§ 504-505, statutory damages may be as high as $150,000, in addition to court costs and attorney’s fees.
Now, on the basis of 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, neither I nor any other hymnist I know would sue a brother in Christ for copyright infringement, but it is certainly ungodly to treat our forbearance as license to violate the law! According to Romans 13:1, God commands Christians to obey the law. Copyright violators, then, engage in activity that is not merely illegal but also sinful.
The cure for the disease is simple. Before copying or distributing a copyrighted hymn, always ask the owner’s permission! In our digitally connected age, this is much less onerous than it has ever been before. All the hymnists I know have e-mail addresses or Facebook accounts.
I have never yet refused permission to someone who wanted to copy or even to record one of my hymns, and (even though hymnists do have the Scriptural right to ask compensation), I have never asked a penny in return. I also make the effort to reply to permission requests in as timely a fashion as possible. Once again, this is generally true of the writers with whom I am familiar. Alternatively, websites such as songsofthechurch.org have secured the relevant permissions from copyright owners and offer the opportunity to download clean copies for a nominal fee.
All hymnists write because we want our hymns to be sung. However, we also want our work protected, from everything from innocent transcription errors to would-be editors who think they can improve our hymns by rewriting them. Copyright is the legal means we have to make sure that the integrity of our work is preserved. It is ethical, legal, and godly for all who want to use our hymns to honor those copyrights, and ignorance of the law is no excuse. All of us should want to glorify God with new hymns, but we must make sure that we glorify Him with our actions too, by obeying the law of the land.