How can I identify public domain hymns?

The Rev. Romero del Rosario holds a songbook featuring the lyrics written by Charles Wesley in 1742, "Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown." Photo by Kathleen Barry, UM News.
The Rev. Romero del Rosario holds a songbook featuring the lyrics written by Charles Wesley in 1742, "Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown." Photo by Kathleen Barry, UM News.

Which hymns and other songs qualify as public domain is based on current copyright law in each country. Copyright laws are sometimes extended or changed, so it’s important to know the current law governing public domain in your country.

In the U.S., no hymns entered the public domain for twenty years after 1998 because of an extension to the existing copyright law. On Jan. 1, 2019, all songs published in 1923 and before (not later arrangements) became public domain. On Jan 1, 2020, songs published in 1924 became public domain. Each year additional songs will enter the public domain unless the law is again changed or extended.

Each hymn has three parts that can be copyrighted – the tune, text (lyrics), and arrangement.  Each one of these parts may have different copyright dates.

Every hymn in official United Methodist hymnals and other song books includes composer, arranger, and copyright information at the bottom of the hymn.  A complete list of copyright acknowledgments also begins on p. 906 of the United Methodist Hymnal.

Songs with all three parts - tune, text, and arrangement - dated prior to 1925 are in the public domain.  Any part of any song (text, tune, arrangement) dated 1925 or after, or subsequently renewed, is under copyright and requires the appropriate licenses or permissions for use.

Here are a few examples of attributions on well-known hymns in the UM Hymnal:

Public Domain

  • It Is Well with My Soul (UMH 377)
    WORDS: Horatio G. Spafford, 1873
    MUSIC:Philip P. Bliss, 1876

  • The Old Rugged Cross (UMH 504)
    WORDS: George Bernard, 1913
    MUSIC: George Bernard, 1913


Copyrighted

  • He Lives (UMH 310)
    WORDS: Alfred H. Ackley, 1933
    MUSIC:Alfred H. Ackley, 1933
    © 1933 The Rodeheaver Co.

  • Morning Has Broken (UMH 145)
    WORDS: Eleanor Farjeon, 1931 (Lam. 3:22-23)
    MUSIC:Trad. Gaelic melody; harm. by Carlton R. Young, 1988
    Words by permission of David Higham Associates, Ltd.; harm. © 1989 The United Methodist Publishing House

Additional Resources

Local Church Learning Session: Copyrights + Licenses

The Piano Accompaniment Recordings offered by Discipleship Ministries is a good resource for public domain tunes from the UM Hymnal and The Faith We Sing. More accompaniments may be added to include new tunes that have come into the public domain in 2019 and 2020. 

Hymns by Year of Composition or Copyright (from 1779 to 2000)

Hymnary.org is an ecumenical resource with songs from many hymnals across denominations. This list includes the most popular hymns.

 

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