Music Player Network Home Guitar Player Magazine Keyboard Magazine Bass Player Magazine EQ Magazine
Topic Options
#1383578 - 05/23/03 12:32 PM Are old hymns copyrighted?
LiveMusic Offline
MP Hall of Fame Member

Registered: 02/23/01
Posts: 4737
Loc: Louisiana
EDIT: I meant to post this is SSS forum and I will but if you want to reply here, that's fine and thanks!


I wrote a song that I am still struggling with the composition. It's not what I want. Johnny Paycheck did a song many years ago called "The Outlaw's Prayer" and man, it is awesome... to expose religious (well, Christian, anyway) hypocrisy. It's actually a recitation, which is what I was doing with my song and I remembered his song. And his song has this old standard hymn music playing (church organ)... I can't quite put my finger on what hymn it was. I am reminded of "Just As I Am" but I don't think that's quite it.

Anyway, just wondering if old hymns... the music... could I use that with no copyright concern?

What if your answer is that there is no concern... and let's assume Johnny Paycheck's song did use an old hymn's composition (as opposed to a new composition that just SOUNDS like a hymn)... he used an actual old hymn... could I use that same composition? In other words, his recording wouldn't change anything regarding future recordings, right?

> > > [ Live! ] < < <

GP Island
#1383579 - 05/23/03 12:55 PM Re: Are old hymns copyrighted?
Lee Flier Offline
10k Club

Registered: 09/13/00
Posts: 15398
Old hymns would normally fall in the public domain - that is, they were either written before copyrights existed or their copyrights have expired. So it is safe to use them, so long as you're sure they're actually traditional hymns and not a recent composition trying to sound like one.
What The...?

Radio KIRA

NEW CD out April 7th! >> Get it here , or here ! <<

#1383580 - 05/23/03 03:15 PM Re: Are old hymns copyrighted?
DC Offline
MP Hall of Fame Member

Registered: 01/17/01
Posts: 2706
Loc: here to eternity...
Yeah, go ahead and use whatever you want. It really doesn't matter unless it becomes a huge hit and then you'll have people contacting you for a piece of the action.

#1383581 - 05/23/03 05:47 PM Re: Are old hymns copyrighted?
NMcGuitar Offline
MP Hall of Fame Member

Registered: 04/17/03
Posts: 3154
Loc: MD (just outside Washington, D...
Lee is right. Most old hymns will probably be in the public domain (which means you can use them however you wish). Just because someone else uses a public domain piece does not change it's status as being PD - you would only run into a problem if you tried to use a copyrighted recording (ie. a "sample") of the piece.

I believe music enters public domain after 80 years (you should double check that though), but the copyright can be renewed for an aditional term - I think it's another 80.

All of this can probably be researched through the Library of Congress, and they would also be a good source to find out if there is a standing copyright on any piece you want to use.

It is also true that if you steal a bit of a melody (or whatever) from something, it is unlikely that anyone will mess with you, unless you start making money on it. Do you really think that the Chiffons (et al) would have sued over "He's So Fine/My Sweet Lord" if it were written by Joe Everyman and only played in the local pub where his band did 1 or 2 gigs a month?

There is certainly a huge debate to be had over this sort of thing, but I don't really want to get into that here. I just wanted to pass on what I know.
May all your thoughts be random!
- Neil

#1383582 - 05/23/03 10:52 PM Re: Are old hymns copyrighted?
roy d Offline
Senior Member

Registered: 11/04/02
Posts: 298
Loc: Santa Barbara, CA
sort of...most old hymns (depending on what you mean by old) are public domain BUT an arrangement of an old hymn tune may have a new copyright that would make you liable for lawsuit AND copyrights can be renewed so find a hymnal that has the song and check for copyright info
"once it stops bein' a mystery it stops bein' true"
David Mowaljarlai - Ngarinyin Aboriginal Elder

#1383583 - 05/23/03 11:07 PM Re: Are old hymns copyrighted?
daddyelmis Offline
Gold Member

Registered: 04/09/02
Posts: 704
Loc: USA
Whether or not a song still has a valid copyright depends on a number of factors, not the least of which is when it was first published. Generally, copyright is now life of the author plus 70 years (special rules apply if the "author" is a company). The Copyright Act has changed several times since 1900 and each variation applied different life, and all key off of when the song was first published.

Works published before 1978 have a life of 28 years but can be renewed once. Generally, however, copyrights cannot be renewed.

A work enters the public domain after its copyright expires. The work may now be used by anyone without consent of the author. As was mentioned, a new arrangement of a public domain song may be copyrighted (that is, the arrangement is protected, not the underlying work). For example, in the 70's when there was a rash of "disco-ized" classical tunes (A Fifth of Beethoven comes to mind), the arrangements were copyright protected even though the underlying composition (Beethoven's fifth symphony) has been in the public domain for ages.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no "magic" amount of a copyrighted song that can be copied or "sampled" without liability.

Go here for some good info:
"Fame is like death: We will never know what it looks like until we've reached the other side. Then it will be impossible to describe and no one will believe you if you try."
- Sloane Crosley, Village Voice


Moderator:  A String, Bluesape, myles_rose