Thou Shalt Not Steal: A Primer for Music Copyright

If your congregation always sings from a hymnal or other songbook, you won’t need this information. On the other hand, if your congregation sometimes uses projected songs or prints them in the bulletin, this article is for you. These FAQs will cover everything you’ve ever wanted to know (and maybe more) about copyright issues pertaining to music. Read it! You’ll be glad you did. And you’ll sleep well knowing your congregation is complying with copyright laws!

Q. Is every song protected by copyright?

A. No, some songs are considered “public domain,” which means that any term of copyright protection has expired, and anyone is free to use the material. But remember that sometimes only a part of a song—text, tune, or harmonization—may be public domain, while another part may be copyrighted.

Q. What parts of a song can be copyrighted?

  • Text (usually just the words of the song, but also a translation, if applicable, or adaptations of an original text)
  • Tune (usually hymn tunes have names, which helps in searching other accompaniment versions in other hymnals)
  • Harmonization, accompaniment, or arrangement
  • Descant

If any of these items are under copyright, a copyright symbol (©) should appear, followed by date(s) of copyright and copyright holder (an individual or a company), often followed by the phrase “Used by permission” and/or “All rights reserved.” There may be several copyrights involved for one single hymn, each belonging to a different copyright holder.

Q. Where do I find the information?

A. Generally you’ll find copyright information in two places: at the top or bottom of the song page, and in an index or acknowledgments section at the back of the book. If the song is more than 100 years old, and you do not see any copyright symbol, or if the hymn is not listed in the acknowledgments, it is probably in the public domain.

Since texts and tunes vary widely between hymnals (and some tunes have more than one name), use author/composer and first line/title indexes to find exactly what you’re looking for.

Q. I found a song I want to use. How do I go about getting permission?

A. There are two basic ways. The easiest is to contact the copyright holder yourself, in which case you need to know all the contact information typically found at the back of the hymnal. The other option is to do an online search to find publisher websites, since many sites have designed online copyright request forms or provide e-mail addresses.

Most publishers charge a nominal fee (around $20); individual copyright holders may also charge fees. One-time use licenses (also covers weddings, funerals) and special event licenses (retreats, conferences, denominational gatherings) are also available from several publishers and copyright license companies.

The second—and easiest—way is to purchase a license from a company that will take care of most of the paperwork for you. Read on!

Q. How can my church get a license?

A. Even if yours is a small congregation, you may find that the best option for incorporating new music into your worship without having to buy more hymnals or do a lot of copyright permission work is to purchase an annual license. Here are three you’ll want to consider:

  • ( administers permissions for a growing list of music publishers, including GIA, the company that covers all music by the Iona Community, Taizé, and many excellent composers such as Marty Haugen and David Haas. administers copyrights for thousands of hymns and songs from around the world from thirty publishers.
  • Recently added a new service for its subscribers: the right to print anthem texts in bulletins at no additional cost (several simple conditions apply; for example, the text must be copyrighted by a member publisher). Online reporting makes this license simple to use. (Note: covers only congregational music, not choral, instrumental, or accompaniment.) If an anthem is out of print, check with the publisher (fees for reprinting choral or accompaniment parts may be charged).
  • CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International; was the first and is still the largest licensing company, covering over 150,000 songs, especially from major commercial publishers of praise and worship songs such as EMI, Hillsong, Integrity, Maranatha!, Mercy/Vineyard, Word.
  • LicenSing (; click on “Church Music”) is a third option, developed in partnership with Logos Productions in the United States; MediaCom Education, Inc. in Australia; and Wood Lake Books in Canada. It provides access to over 100,000 songs, coordinates with the Revised Common Lectionary, and includes resources for planning and acquiring music, as well as a free quarterly periodical, LicenSing Update.

After you purchase an annual license, your church will be assigned a license number. You’ll be instructed on the wording to use whenever the license is needed, as well as any reporting to be submitted. Many churches assign their church secretaries, or whoever prepares the bulletin, to keep records of songs used that are covered by licenses.

Annual licenses are a true bargain: with, a church with 26-100 persons on average at weekly Sunday services pays about $100 annually. If you would be using your license on average for one song each Sunday service and other festival services (Christmas), the cost is less than $2 per song. Definitely worth the investment, considering the time saved.

Q. I noticed some copyrights are administered by someone other than the author or composer. Then what?

A. If the copyright is administered by an individual or company (“admin. by xxx” following the copyright holder name), then you should contact that party rather than the copyright holder. The CCLI license, in particular, has extensive lists of both copyright holders and administrators; if you find yours listed there, it means that your CCLI license will cover that song.

Q. Are lead sheets available? Are they covered?

A. Perhaps your church has a praise team that uses lead sheets. A license called SongSelect (basic and advanced), available from CCLI, allows you to download lead sheets, as well as print and download lyrics from over 70,000 songs and listen to thirty-second samples.

Q. What about bulletins and overhead projection?

A. The copyright holder (or annual license) will provide the exact wording to be used in the bulletin, if your church uses bulletins or songsheets.

The issue of putting texts or music on slides or projection systems (such as PowerPoint) is a bit more complicated. The CCLI license enables you to make overhead transparencies, song sheets, and songbooks, input lyrics on a computer, record worship services (only music covered by CCLI), and make arrangements of the music (where no published version exists). CCLI also has a Church Video License that provides legal coverage for churches to show home videocassettes and videodiscs of motion pictures for a variety of church activities. Many churches record their weekly services for a tape ministry to homebound members. The Church Video License allows you to legally include the song service on your recording, if the song is covered by CCLI.

Another company has recently made it possible for people with copyright licenses to project music as well as texts, so the congregation can continue to see the music and sing in harmony if they wish. Inspirational Worship Inc. ( will convert your CCLI,, or LicenSing licensed praise and worship songs into PowerPoint presentations.

Q. Is it OK for an organist to copy a piece of music to avoid page turns?

A. I don’t believe the copyright police will come knocking at your door for doing this. Because one copy of the music has been purchased, making a single copy for that purpose would not be preventing the copyright holder from receiving royalties. However, copying an entire composition for another organist (rather than lending the original) would be a clear violation of copyright.

Q. What about altering the text or music?

A. Altering text or music under copyright is illegal (if you are going to make the change in print format).

Q What about copying a song from our hymnal?

A. Consider this scenario: your elders are meeting in someone’s home and would like to begin the meeting with worship, but they don’t want to bring hymnals. I’d strongly suggest using hymnals whenever possible and saving a few trees, not to mention setting a wise example for children, our future worship leaders. Check the copyright page of your hymnal for conditions under which the contents may be reproduced.



For a list of handy websites providing extensive copyright information, check our website:

Emily J. Cooper is coordinator of publicity and publicatiosn for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW), Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 78 © December 2005, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.