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  • Writer's pictureCassandra L. Wilkinson

Here We Come A-Caroling

With the holidays approaching, you cannot go far without hearing the familiar sounds of Christmas in the stores, in the car, and at places of worship, and if you are friends of our family, we might show up at your front door and regale you with song during our annual caroling outing.
Like all creative property, Christmas music and lyrics are eligible for copyright protection. Article 1 Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution grants the government the power to “promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries."
A copyright is an author’s exclusive right to his or her intellectual property. Even if the copyright is never registered with the copyright office, the work is still protected. Registering one’s composition with the copyright office enables the author to notify the public of the copyright, to collect royalties for use of the copyrighted material, and to legally enforce the copyright when an infringement occurs.
Music or lyrics still under copyright protection cannot be reproduced, distributed, performed in public, played by recording in public, or rearranged for public use. These rules stand regardless of whether the actions are for profit or for free.
Compositions not protected under copyright law are said to be in the public domain. Copyrights expire after a certain period of time depending on its creation date. Works can also become part of the public domain if the owner gifts the work to the public. Works in the public domain can be arranged, reproduced, performed, recorded, and published without permission or payment of royalties.
Any work produced prior to 1923 is part of the public domain. Luckily for Christmas carolers everywhere, most traditional Christmas songs were produced long before 1923 and are all part of the public domain. The rules for entrance into the public domain for works produced after 1923 are far more complicated. Over the past 100 years, the length of copyright protection has been increased several times. For present works, the duration of the copyright is the life of the author plus seventy years.
Here are some popular Christmas songs that are part of the public domain- enjoy!
“Angels We Have Heard on High” “Away In a Manger” “Deck the Halls” “The First Noel” “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” “Jingle Bells” “Joy to the World” “The Twelve Days of Christmas” “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” “What Child is This?”
Here are some examples of Christmas songs still under copyright protection- enjoy with permission!
“All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” “Do You Hear What I Hear?” “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” “A Holly Jolly Christmas” “Carol Of The Bells” “Feliz Navidad” “Frosty The Snowman” “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer”
How do you know whether or not a work is copyrighted? First, look for the registered copyright symbol © and/or the copyright date which often accompanies the title. Unless you are certain that the work was published before 1923, you should assume it is protected by copyright. There are also websites that list copyrighted material. The United States Copyright Office,, has a user-friendly database. Remember, a composition is still protected even if the author has failed to register it with the United States Copyright Office, so you may also need to do some homework to ascertain the publication date.
Be careful, the lyrics, music composition, and performance for a song can each have a copyright. For example, the music and lyrics may be part of the public domain, but an individual can copyright their performance or rearrangement of the piece. If you would like to work with copyrighted Christmas material, you may want to contact an intellectual property lawyer to ensure that proper procedures are followed.
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