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copyrightCan you change things that are copyright?

There has been a lot of discussion here and here recently about whether a line in a hymn is understood to express Christian teaching well, or whether it is preferably altered to better express orthodox Christian teaching, and help those singing it and hearing it, to get the right understanding that is intended.

In parallel to that has been the issue of altering copyright words. If you want to discuss the theology – go to those posts. Here we are talking about copyright.

Copyright is both a legal and a moral (and liturgical) issue.

Fairly obviously: you cannot use a text, tune, image, etc. that is copyright, without acknowledgement and following the conditions of use of the copyright holder. This is obviously a legal and a moral requirement.

1) Can you change a word or words in a copyrighted text? Legally? Morally?
1a) Can you change a word or words in a copyrighted text if you acknowledge that the particular word or words are changed? Legally? Morally?
eg. “He/his” to “God/God’s”; “brethren” to “siblings”; can you change the words to become “The love (rather than the original wrath) of God was satisfied”? If you put * and at the bottom of the page/screen *originally “wrath”?

2) Can you print the original, and instruct people to change the words as they sing?
eg. “When we get to ‘wrath’ we will sing ‘love'”; “‘He’ we will sing ‘God'”…
Legally? Morally? [Please remember – don’t make this a theological discussion – that goes here]

3) Can individuals alter what they are singing as they sing? “He” to “God”; “wrath” to “love”. Legally? Morally?
3a) There’s a liturgical issue here also. There is a loss of common prayer when some sing one thing, and others sing something else in audible protest.
Furthermore, the focus can shift to an individual’s pet peeve. Just as it can in the leader making the changes on the printed/projected/instructed version.

4) Can you remove verses of a copyrighted text in printing it? Legally? Morally?

5) Can you print all verses, and instruct people to omit verses when singing, eg. “we will sing verses 1,3,and 5”? Legally? Morally?
5a) Is there a different issue with projecting? If all verses are required by copyright to be present on the projector screen, but we are allowed to choose verses to sing when all verses are present?

6) If an author has put lyrics with one particular tune, can you sing those lyrics to another tune? Legally? Morally?

7) If you are following all copyright requirements in terms of, for example, acknowledging sources on printed service booklets for a service – can you podcast, live-stream, or video-and-place-on-YouTube this same material?

Another discussion is the copyrighting of Christian texts. I have an issue with copyrighting certain texts which need to be purchased, and then requiring (not-well-off) communities to purchase those texts.

Copyright has been an issue for the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia which lost full control of our own copyright over our own rites in A New Zealand Prayer Book He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa. I think issues with that continue to this day.

image: This image is ineligible for copyright and therefore in the public domain, because it consists entirely of information that is common property and contains no original authorship.

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27 thoughts on “copyright”

  1. The Hymnal 1982 (Episcopal Church-US) edited hymns all over the place.

    For example, “I am the bread of life” was successfully “neutered” by changing to plural. The change was acknowledged in the fine print.

    This shows you _can_ do it.

    1. Thanks, Bob. Yes, you can legally alter copyrighted text by going through a proper process, that could include, for example if the author is still living, approval by the author. Blessings.

  2. Also, how many hymnals are the original words in the first verse of that hymn from Pilgrim’s Progress (“Who would true valor see” versus “He would valiant be”)?

  3. Peter Carrell

    Well, on one matter I feel very strongly: shortening hymns and songs! Some are just too long and the omission of a verse or three is required for the occasion.

    I should find myself regularly confessing my legal and moral sins if it is a matter of legal and moral injunction to use every verse of a hymn or song.

    In general I cannot see a great issue with changing a word or two for an occasion (as opposed to making a permanent change (say) when printing a hymn or song in a hymn book(let) or for a repeatedly used Powerpoint slide). I should think a copyright lawyer would be hard pressed to make the case in court that a one-off change infringed the law.

    Another thought: if it is illegal/immoral to change the words of a copyrighted hymn/song, is it illegal/immoral to change the notes to its music?

  4. 1. While a work is still subject to copyright, only if the copyright owner agrees – and this applies to adding verses as well.
    2. Don’t expect them to get it right. Seriously…
    3. Can’t stop them!
    4. Not entirely sure, but they regularly shorten songs on the radio
    5. Can’t see why not
    6. Please see I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue and one song to the tune of another (presumably they pay for the rights to use the lyrics and the music!)
    7. Only if you have paid for the rights to broadcast the material, because they’re separate from the rights to provide powerpoint, orders of service etc.

    Copyrighting Christian texts: the authors have to make a living too, you know. That said, the CoE made Common Worship freely available and the CoI made our BCP freely available online, but both place restrictions on how it may be used.

    Who would true valour see, as with all of John Bunyan’s work, is unquestionably in the public domain. It is still polite and honourable to credit him and advise whether the text has been amended or not, as we do with Hark the herald angels sing.

    1. Thanks, Andy. Re: your point about copyrighting Christian texts: The RC Church requires one translation of the psalter to be used. It was composed by an RC monk. So all English-speaking RCs wanting to pray the Daily Office as authorised, and many are required to pray this, are bound to purchase that text because that author has to make a living? In that particular, huge case, I’m not convinced. Blessings.

  5. Julianne Stewart

    Of course there are (possible) legal means of changing copyrighted text etc, as noted. But I always like the work of late 20th C philosopher Michel de Certeau, especially his book The Practice of Everyday Life


    where he talks about how we commonly make small acts of resistance, of which I imagine changing hymn lines is a simple example. So, we do it, we should do it, the copyright laws try to regulate it, with mixed success. People have different kinds of stakes in texts, so it is not surprising that these are laws that are commonly broken.

  6. Robert Voorwinde

    The author retains the intelectual copyright to any written or drawn content.
    However there is a legal percentage of alteration such as artwork, where a 20% alteration then no longer renders copyright as enforceable. I would presume that this would also be aplicable to the written text. Written text then attracts the further term ‘plagerism’, which is keenly contested in court rooms all over the world.
    What it really comes down to was the copyright infringement intentional or accidental.

    1. There is no “20%” rule in US copyright law, per se. There is “fair use,” which is something else. Also, there is provision for derivative works, but that isn’t based on a percentage, either.

      In the US, intentionally or otherwise, if you use work with a copyright held by another, you are liable for damages. Your penalties may be less if unintentional, but that is not a legal defense in the US.

      You may want to look at this:


  7. I would dispute your statement “This is obviously a legal and a moral requirement”, at least if we are talking about use of an altered work in the context of a worship service. Morally, I would dispute that any person has the right to tell others what words they should and should not use to worship God. Also legally, there are international laws and principles which protect this freedom to worship. Although I am no expert on this, I would expect a good human rights lawyer at least here in the USA to be able to defend successfully any church which was taken to court for copyright infringement in a case like this (although the defense could cost more than any damages that might be payable).

    I would agree that there is a moral and perhaps a legal duty for a church to acknowledge compensate an author properly for the use of their work. But that is a different matter from allowing an author to prevent the church from using the words which it sees fit.

    There is also an issue here of whether it would be right for a Christian author to pursue through the courts any claim against a church. Paul gives clear principles for cases like that in 1 Corinthians 6:7.

    See further what I wrote a few years ago: Is breach of copyright theft? See also what Vern Poythress wrote about this in 2005.

    1. Peter, as I’ve said before, no one is telling other people what they can and can’t use to worship God. You’re free to use any hymn you like. Moral rights (which is a legal term) simply mean that if you choose to use my hymn in your service, you can’t print an amended version of the lyrics on your bulletin or on your screen without my permission.

      1. Tim, I’m not sure what the legalities are here, but surely if the religious service exemption is to have any practical use it must allow the words to be printed or otherwise displayed for use within worship only. In fact according to the link I gave earlier it is not a breach of copyright in the USA to “display the lyrics of a work in a religious service”. I would also consider that church etc leaders have a moral right (in the general sense, not the legal one) to be able to direct their congregations, and that requires giving them printed or projected words.

        1. The religious service exemption allows churches to sing copyrighted songs without paying a performance fee. It does not allow them to print the lyrics without getting a copyright licence (if it did, some zealous lawyer would have put CCLI out of business years ago), nor does it allow them to make changes in printing lyrics that they have a licence for without the permission of the author. In short, the religios service exemption refers to performance, not reproduction of lyrics.

          1. Tim, I am surprised that you, a Brit and Canadian with no legal training, claim to know this aspect of US law better than the people at Christian Copyright Solutions (a competitor to CCLI? or another name for the same people?) who wrote the article I linked to before, who quote specific laws and are probably lawyers or at least had what they wrote checked by lawyers. That article specifically states that “you do not have to get permission from the copyright owner or pay royalties to … display the lyrics of a work in a religious service”. Exactly what forms of display are permitted are surely a matter for lawyers, but I doubt if all kinds of printed display is forbidden.

  8. As a composer of traditional English hymn-tunes (and other sacred choral works), I’d like to offer some perspective from my side. I generally use texts that are in the public domain, and have made only two exceptions thus far. In both instances, the texts really spoke to me. One I found as text by itself, the other paired with a tune that I felt really dd not suit the dignity/beauty of the poetry.

    In both cases I sought out the author and requested permission to pair the harmonisation I’d come up with to their text.

    In one case, the author freely gave his permission to pair his text with my tune, as well as freely distribute it. The only caveat was that it could not be sold.

    The other author consented, but requested that whenever I wished to share the pairing I was to contact him first, and that depending on the intended use, we may wish to charge a small fee for royalties.

    Because of the hassle involved with connecting with authors to get usage permission is why I prefer to stay with PD texts.

    Now with regard to my own music, some of it is for sale via an online publisher (Holy Measures), but by far the bulk is freely available via CPDL (Choral Public Domain Lirary). I write my music to be enjoyed by others, and encourage its free use. Just don’t sell it! (At least not without my permission and a royalty contract!)

    If someone wishes to alter a note here or there, that is fine, just let me know. Not so much for matters of copyright, but rather that someone else may “hear” something in the composition that I hadn’t considered, and they may be on to something. That’s happened to me twice, and I greatly appreciated the insight, and realised their suggestion made sense. I tweaked my original compositions accordingly.

  9. I’m really not sure what this post is, Bosco. Is this a poll asking what people think? If so, that’s problematic, since my experience is that most people are woefully ignorant about copyright law. They’ll say things like “I can’t see there being a problem with…”, when in fact there is a very real problem with the illegal activity they’re defending.

    To find real answers, this is a good place to start:


    1. I’m not really sure what your comment is, Tim 😉 Are you being funny because of people’s questioning of my polling in the last week (yes, my first degree is in Mathematics). This post is gathering together copyright issues that have popped up on this site, in conversations, and elsewhere, including your repeated criticism of my neglect of the copyright issue both in comments here and on your own site (no – your link doesn’t answer them all). I have contacted some people I thought may answer some of the questions. Since you are the one that primarily set me to work on this post, how about offering the “real answers” to these questions here. Blessings.

      1. Bosco – sorry if my comment sounded abrasive. I was just a little surprised that your post was asking questions instead of giving information.

        1 and 1a: Yes, with the author’s permission (the author, not the copyright holder, because moral rights can’t be assigned to a publisher).

        2. I’m not sure of the legality of this. Morally, it bothers me.

        3. People are going to do this regardless!

        4. No.

        5. Yes

        6. Yes.

        7. No, you need a performance licence for that.

        1. Thanks, Tim. In conversations I had with several people about this I could not easily find the information, and also found strong disagreement, so thought a post collecting all the various issues I could come up with would be the most helpful as it would go out to many more people than the few conversations I had managed. Easter Season Blessings.

    2. Tim, it was good to read in your link about the religious service exemption in U.S. copyright law. This is explained in more detail here, and it would appear to allow altered work to be used in the context of worship – but not to be recorded, broadcast or webcast. And of course this is for the USA only.

  10. I can understand the need for composers and writers to protect their work from outright plagiarism, and to guarantee some income comes back for their labour, bur I can’t say I understand the need to control ( ‘contact me whenever you use my work’? ) what happens to something once it’s out there in the wider sphere. Especially when it’s a matter of pragmatism, such as we don’t need or have time to sing all twelve verses…not even a matter of taking issue with content/ecumenism!

    If the piece is written in A and I can’t reliably hit the top note and bring it down a few keys so it sounds better…am I insulting the integrity of the composer?!

    ‘There is a loss of common prayer when some sing one thing, and others sing something else in audible protest.’

    But it’s also more inclusive if people feel open to singing what is meaningful to them. Or not singing at all something they don’t feel comfortable with- why must things be combative? We already know it’s impossible for us all to agree on everything unless it’s a cult we’re establishing…we already know that healthy people resist being controlled…we already know that the same words mean different things to different people…

    There are loads of muddy areas around copyright: photocopying, online broadcasts, adaptation of established works and public domain…and not least the idea that having been spiritually inspired to produce work meant to spiritually inspire others it’s okay to let it go and be spiritually used!

    1. The way it was put to me a few years ago by Stuart Townend was that if you add a verse to How deep the Father’s Love, it ceases to be his song (apart from the extra verse being out of style and grim!)

      Tracy, very few cover versions stay in the original key. Consider Only You – written by Vince Clarke for Yazoo, Alison Moyet sang it in one key, and the Flying Pickets sang it in a totally different key. Ditto Kirsty MacColl and Tracey Ullman singing Kirsty’s song They Don’t Know. I change keys all the time, sometimes on sight, because music editors who should know better don’t.

  11. I am really surprised at the total absence of creative commons licensing in church materials. Contrary to popular creative commons is not an alternative to copyright. It is a set of specific and legally binding licenses that copyright holders can issue with their works that allow users to make create use of the works. I think it is would highly appropriate for use in worship songs and worship materials. You can set the license to be quite restrictive or entirely permissive.
    Most OECD governments (including NZ and the US) are moving to releasing all of their publications under creative commons – so it not fringe stuff.

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