A few weeks ago, a friend at Justia celebrated his birthday. And, you know how it goes. There’s a cake involved and everyone sings that special unique song known for that occasion: “Happy Birthday.” Well, it turns out that the Happy Birthday song is copyrighted. So, for any reproduction, one must ask for permission from the copyright holder or pay a licensing fee.
Now that the holidays are coming, I started wondering about the copyright status of several of the popular songs that we hear everywhere we go during the month of December. If you like to take holiday videos and share them with your family and friends on the web, you should be aware that since January 2009, YouTube has been silencing videos with copyrighted music. So, you cannot just add any song to give your video a touch of holiday spirit.
Every artistic work falls under one of two categories: public domain or copyrighted. Public domain works are the ones we consider “free” works. This means that we may use the words and melody from any of these works without permission. However, while a centuries-old carol may be in the public domain, a modern recording of the same carol may be copyrighted. Accordingly, the freedom to use the melody and lyrics does not mean that one can reproduce any version of these songs freely since the performer or publisher may hold a copyright to the recording. In the United States, the copyright of a song or recording generally does not expire until 70 years after the death of either the composer, the arranger, the producer or any of the principal musicians, whichever dies last.
Here are some public domain Christmas songs:
- Carol of the Drum (Czech carol)
- Twelve Days of Christmas
- Oh Christmas Tree
- Jingle Bells
- Joy to the World
- O Holy Night
- Silent Night
- Three Kings
- Good King Wenceslas
For public domain songs, you can freely sing them when you go caroling in your neighborhood. However, the sheet music for a particular arrangement of the song or a recording of the work by another artist may be copyrighted. Thus, if you want to add Frank Sinatra’s Jingle Bells as a background track to your holiday video, you must secure permission from the copyright owner.
For copyrighted songs, your school or town chorus must obtain a license to sing or pass along copies of the lyrics or melody. Examples of songs that you cannot use freely without prior consent of the work’s rights owner include:
- White Christmas
- Frosty the Snow Man
- Jingle Bell Rock
- Here Comes Santa Claus
- Let it Snow
- Little Drummer Boy
- Santa Claus is Coming to Town
- Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
You can find a more complete list and additional information at the Christmas Songs and Carols list on the APRA|AMCOS website or the ASCAP list of top 25 holiday songs. Additionally, if you are interested in copyright-related information, visit the Stanford Fair Use & Copyright site to explore more on issues about the fair use of copyrighted materials.
The good news is that places like Jamendo allow you to use their recordings of public domain songs under a permissive license, like Creative Commons. So, download their holiday tunes to remix with your own holiday videos.
Tracking the copyright status of a song can be a very daunting task. Following the history of compositions, edits, remixes, rewritings and different publications can get complicated. Be sure contact your lawyer when in doubt before using a work when you are not sure of its copyright status.
Photo “My Christmas Tree” is Creative Commons by Tony Case