Copyright — a bird’s-eye view

We’re careful about copyrights in church music – at least we should be. I tell churches often:

Licensing and royalties we can budget for.

Fines we never do.

(Yes, that’s an original. Have I copyrighted it? No. Help yourself if you want.) 😀

Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac had an interesting item about copyrights today, I thought you might enjoy.

It was on this day in 1790 that Congress enacted the United States copyright law. The law gave authors exclusive rights to publish and sell maps, charts, and books for a period of 14 years, with a chance to renew the copyright for another 14 years. There have been many changes to the U.S. copyright law since 1790. In the 19th century, copyrights became available for photographs, paintings, drawings, and models. In 1909, musical rolls for player pianos became covered by the law. In the last 30 years, copyright law has expanded to include cable TV, computer software, tapes, CDs, DVDs, and MP3s.

Copyright terms have also gradually gotten longer. Up until 1998, copyrights lasted for the life of the author plus an additional 50 years before they went into the public domain. But in that year, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act extended the duration of copyrights by 20 years. The act was supported by a group of large corporations, led by Disney. Most of Disney’s famous characters were scheduled to enter the public domain between 2000 and 2004, but now other artists and companies won’t be able to use them in their books and movies and songs until at least 2019 – which means that Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and all the rest are still protected by copyright.


So when you want to arrange, record, re-print, etc. – all those things that have to do with copyright questions, start by asking yourself “Has it been 70 years since the author/composer passed away?” If so, it’s probably public doman. Unless the composer’s estate renewed the contract, which happens occasionally. Do your research, make sure your church belongs to CCLI. Licensing and royalties we can budget for. Fines we never do.

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