Dec 19, 2021

Copyright and Print Permissions for Hymnals

The world of copyright and print licensing can seem dauting and complex, but print permissions (or print licenses) are simply agreements between the you (the publisher) and the copyright holder that grant permission to you to include copyrighted material in your hymnal.

Unfortunately, because of ignorance (or perhaps willful avoidance), churches and church musicians don’t always follow the law regarding copyrights. Hopefully this post can help clarify what is required to comply with the copyright law. I’ll answer the most common questions about the process of securing print permissions for hymnals.

Can I include “Song X” in our hymnal? 

Most likely. If the song is in the public domain (which I’ll explain below), you can use it freely. If it’s under copyright, you need permission from the copyright holder to include it. It’s rare that a copyright holder would say no, but it’s their prerogative.

Why do I need a print license? We’re not selling these!

This is a common objection, but whether you’re selling the hymnal or not isn’t the point. Nor does it matter that you’re a non-profit or a religious organization. Any use of copyrighted material requires permission from the copyright holder. Just to make sure that was clear, I’ll write it again:

Any use of copyrighted material requires permission from the copyright holder.

Print license agreements and copyright permissions represent the legal protection of authors’ and composers’ intellectual property. We strongly encourage churches to be thorough and proactive with copyright holders to ensure your hymnal is accurately and completely covered, and we work closely with you throughout the print license process.

Can we change the words or the music?

No, you cannot change the words or the music of a copyrighted song without permission; and when asked, the copyright holder will almost always say no. You also cannot add a stanza to music if that music is under copyright.

Can we go to print before we have permission from all copyright holders to use their songs?

No, that’s not a good idea. If even a single copyright holder declines to grant you permission to use their song, you wouldn’t be able to use or distribute the hymnals. Get permission from everyone before you go to print!

Can we just print the hymnal under our CCLI license?

No. This is a tricky one. While it’s true that CCLI is a popular way for churches to get blanket permission to use copyrighted songs in their services, there are some things a CCLI license doesn’t cover, and hymnals are one of those things.

CCLI states on its website that their copyright license allows churches to “print songs, hymns and lyrics in bulletins, programs, liturgies and song sheets for congregational singing.” While that may seem sufficiently vague, what’s missing from that list is the term “song books.” In the past, the wording of the licensing terms seemed to allow the creation of more permanent physical books under CCLI, but this specific type of permission was removed in 2020 at the request of several major copyright holders. The remaining types of permitted materials, such as bulletins and song sheets, are intended for temporary use. I’ve spoken with a CCLI executive, a Nashville copyright lawyer, and copyright administrators, and they all say the same thing: CCLI was never intended to cover the creation of permanent print materials, and their website has been updated to clarify that.

Your hymnal would need to be published entirely independent from your CCLI account, using standard print licenses.

How do I know if a song is under copyright?

You can search for the song on websites like CCLI SongSelect or Or we can help you with that. Basically, if the song was written in the past 100 years or so, it’s probably under copyright. Unless it’s…

Public domain… What is that, exactly? And how would I know if a song is public domain?

A song in the public domain has lost all copyright protections. You can change, remove, re-arrange, and re-publish any portion of a public domain song, either words or music. It requires no copyright attribution on the page. So… how do you know whether a song is in the public domain?

The most common mistake here it to assume that just because a song is old, it must be PD. But that’s not a safe assumption. There are two main categories of publication dates to determine length of copyright:

First, songs published in 1978 or later remain under copyright for 70 years after the death of the author (if math isn’t your thing… that’s a long time from now).

Songs published before 1978 had previously been under copyright for 75 years from date of publication, but this was extended by an additional 20 years in 1998 for all songs currently under copyright at that time, so… 95 years. Example: “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” was published in 1923, renewed in 1951, and entered the public domain in 2019.

And there’s an additional caveat: songs published before 1964 only receive the longer 95-year copyright protection if their copyright was manually renewed with the US Copyright office within 28 years of the original copyright date.

Stated another way: no songs entered the public domain between 1978 and 2019, but in 2019, there were a flood of newly-minted PD converts. It’s important to carefully check the copyright and renewal dates of the song in question, if applicable, to make sure you know its copyright status.

The song I want isn’t public domain. How do I get permission to include it?

Simply put: ask the copyright holder. Most copyright holders will grant you permission. Some may allow you to use it for free, others will ask for some kind of terms. Usually those terms will be pro rata, based on the cost of the hymnal, the number of copyrighted songs, and how many copies you’re printing.

This seems like a lot of work. Maybe too much?

It is a fair bit of work, but it probably seems harder than it actually is. If the hymnal project as a whole is a marathon, then the securing print permissions is like the final 400-meter sprint: you wouldn’t quit at that point!

Hymnworks advises all our hymnal clients in the copyright process. We’ll help you make sure you have a hymnal that’s properly licensed and ready to distribute.