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Copyright Question for singalong

I am planning a "sing a long" for a gathering of a group for a retreat.  Later on in the year I am planning a sing a long for a group of Senior Citizens.  Both organizations are not-for-profit.  I would like to prepare a way for the participants to be able to see the lyrics to the songs for the sing a long.  Can I write down the lyrics and make a little songbook for each participant without permission necessary, or can I make a Power Point presentation to have everyone sing from a projection, or do I need to get permission to do any of this?  The songs in the first instance will be old "Campfire" type songs, and the second will be Holiday Carols and old standards like "White Christmas"..
Replies (16): Threaded | Chronological
on October 4, 2015 6:16am
Thanks for asking the question. A lot of this goes on, but that doesn't make it right. Generally permission is needed for any copying of works that are protected by copyright. Non-profit organizations (including churches) are not exempt from this requirement. The lyrics and the music may be separate issues. When I write a choral setting of an 18th-century text, the music is protected by copyright but not the text. True folksongs (not the new ones from the 60's) may be public domain, but be careful about campfire songs as well as "secular" Christmas songs. "White Christmas" is almost certainly protected. Look in any church hymnal. You'll find an acknowledgements section, usually in the back, with copyright information. It's entirely up to the copyright owner whether to give permission to reprint and under what terms it may be used. In this context we have to think of musical works, lyrics included, as products for sale. Unauthorized copying is therefore a kind of shoplifting. 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 4, 2015 8:25am
Anthony is totally right. Generally, only the lyrics of public domain songs can be printed without permission. That being said, it is possible to get permission - - it just costs money. Contact any publishers whose lyrics you'd like to reprint and ask how much they charge. It may not be very much; or if it's Hal Leonard, it may be $200-$300 for no good reason.
on October 5, 2015 7:10am
One good reason, aside from asthetics, why our circles edit and present renaissance music!
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on October 5, 2015 5:20am
Any song (music and/or lyrics) that is copyrighted CANNOT be reprinted without permission.  But -- any song (music and/or lyrics) that is in the public domain can be printed without permission.  You can find a very comprehensive list of public domain songs at  Be aware that in some cases the tune is public domain, but the lyrics are NOT.  ("On Top of Old Smokey" is one of those examples.)  Again, will give you that information.  One can put together a very nice sing-along by using only public domain songs.  Reprinting either the lyrics or the melody of a copyrighted song is an infringement of copyright law.  If you do want to obtain permission to reprint a copyrighted song, you will need to go through the company that controls the print rights for the copyright holder.  In most cases, this is Hal Leonard.  Their minimum fee is $100 just to start the process.      
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on October 5, 2015 7:29am
Depending on whether there is an affiliation with a church, you may be able to accomplish this under the auspices of its Church Copyright Licensing, Inc. (CCLI) license, if it has one.
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on October 5, 2015 4:44pm
Obviously I would never promote illegal activity--I'm a composer myself, and understand that artists deserve fair pair for their work. But let's be realistic here: this is a fun event for a retreat and a group of senior citizens. I may get piled on here, but... seriously? Are you going to dump several hundred dollars getting permission, or are you just going to do it? Especially if this is a free event... I sometimes think people can be a little too rigorous about playing by the book. One man's opinion!
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on October 6, 2015 6:10am
I say again, there are PLENTY of songs in the public domain, including hymns, holiday carols, and "old campfire" songs from which one can compile a terrific sing-along list.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 6, 2015 8:09am
Thanks for all the advice.  I am more of a "by the book" person, too, but it is troublesome to have to go through the procedure.  I wish that when the law had been passed, that all that lobbying for not-for profits, etc.  had been successful.  Yes, those who create should be rewarded, and many get rich on this idea.  That would not be me, or our not-for-profit "old ladies" - but I will comply.  Because I do believe strongly that the person without whom we would not have the creation does deserve to make a living. 
on October 6, 2015 9:09am
 on October 4, 2015 8:25am
Anthony is totally right. Generally, only the lyrics of public domain songs can be printed without permission. That being said, it is possible to get permission - - it just costs money. Contact any publishers whose lyrics you'd like to reprint and ask how much they charge. It may not be very much; or if it's Hal Leonard, it may be $200-$300 for no good reason.
Forgive me here if I am off base, but I think the bolded is incorrect.  A work in the public domain is not protected by copyright and as such, there is no need to ask for permission before printing or performing the music.  It, by its very nature, belongs to the public.  However, I do not know how this applies to individual printings of public domain works (by, say, Hal Leonard, as stated in your example).
on October 7, 2015 5:06am
Katherine's observation is spot on.  Unless the lyrics (and/or the music, as stated in my earlier post) are in the public domain, they are copyrighted and their use requires permission.
on October 7, 2015 8:08am
I believe the distinction is this: 
Say I take the song What Child is This (public domain lyrics and melody) and create an arrangement of it. The lyrics remain public domain and so does the melody, but my arrangement - vocal harmonies and any accompaniment - would be copyrighted. 
Which means you may well find old folk tunes you really like printed by Hal Leopard with a copyrighted arrangement, and (after making sure the melody and lyrics are truly public domain) use the original parts freely. Just be sure. Sometimes folks write new verses to folk songs, and that part can be, I believe, copyrighted. The website referenced above is very helpful. 
Also, be careful. I do not think it was the same site, but I was on a site that was supposed to be all public domain, and it included the lyrics to Simon and Garfunkels Scarborough Fair. The melody and original lyrics are public domain, buit the countermelody is surely copyrighted. I think the website editor made an assumption that was unfounded. 
Anyway, my two cents. 
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on November 3, 2015 4:29am
Dear Susan Young!
You raised the question of copyright. But both lyrics and music that are accessible in public domains are copyrighted. So you can use all of them free of charge on the condition that you give reference to the copyright owners. That's all. But if you use it beyond your church or school etc. in concerts that gather money for you or your employees, then you should consider agreement between you and the owners of the copyright. Probably they agree to give you a chance to use their compositions free of charge even if the performance of theirs compositions is paid by listeners, goers or visitors of the concert. Because this is a way of propagation of our's and their's worship. (Not "War Ship" from lovely jokes by Lewis Carroll).
So you can use lyrics and music free. Including that of mine. (Find it at Andrey Luchnik)
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on November 4, 2015 6:36am
on November 4, 2015 12:43pm
RICH CAMPBELL gives references to local USA copyright laws, often outdated, often brought up to date. These are NOT INTERNATIONAL copyright laws.
I remember how all possible copyright laws were violated in the USSR. (US - back, US - back: USSR (The Beatles)). This is not a joke by the Beatles, but simple coincidence. After 1990 New Russia tried to keep international copyright laws. But in music and lyrics those were still the same "local laws" as now in the USA.
Only in May 2015 we've got proper International law propagated even to officially registered Internet sites. This law is now in accordance with world's copyright laws.
Please, dear RICH CAMPBELL, give us a reference to international copyright law that acts at the territory of the USA. This law really exists. Please ring to the BELL in your CAMP and become RICH at international level, not only at the local level. Also you may add addresses of international agencies that help to propagate modern music at international level. 
My hilarious tone is for your joy. Looking at your face at your page I guessed that you've got sense of humor. OK?
on November 5, 2015 5:11am
Susan.  Check out the "GET AMERICA SINGING AGAIN" books....designed just for this type of situation.  Easier on you and LEGAL!  It sounds like a great project.  I assume you have seen the documentary on treating Alzheimer's patients with's on Netflix and I think it is called "Alive Inside" if I'm not mistaken.
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on November 5, 2015 3:14pm
Copyright law is a good thing, over all, but the waters get very murky regarding traditional songs from the oral tradition.  Carol gives a good example with "On Top of Old Smokey", in which the tune is public domain (PD) but the words are not.  According to the website she recommends (thank you--great resource!), the definition of PD is "To prove PD status in the USA you MUST find a published copy of the song with a copyright date of 1922 or earlier."  But "published copy" is the very antithesis of the oral tradition.  That's why it's called "oral" -- despite the presence of various written and printed copies made through the centuries.
Ignore for the moment the legal decisions and technicalities, and consider for a moment the question of ethics, which is what we try to codify with our laws.  According to Wikipedia, this song "...was first recorded in 1925 by George Reneau, 'The Blind Musician of the Smokey Mountains.'"  Then in 1957, "Pete Seeger modified a version he heard in the Appalachians, writing new words and banjo music."  The PD website says the tune is PD because it's "The Little Mohee--Appalachian Folk Tune...1916 or earlier."  The words were written "about 1925...not PD"  because  "1922 or earlier publication is unknown."
This raises many, many questions:
1.  Is Reneau the source of the words from "about 1925?"  Did he keep a notebook?  Were they transcribed in the liner notes?  Did the record company make a copy?
2.  Did Reneau record someone else's words, the same year they were written?  Who did he learn the song from, and how far back do the words go?
3.  What consitutes a "published copy"?  
4.  Why should a "publisher" from outside an oral tradition be able to gain total control of works (and profits therefrom) created collectively by a group of people who typically are economically disadvantaged and know little about publishing?  (I understand the recovery of costs and making a reasonable profit.)
5.  How different was Seeger's 1957 "version" and how much did he "modify" it?  When does a "version" and a "modification" cross over into originality? 
6.  Was Seeger's version derived ultimately from the same source as Reneau's in 1925?  How would we even figure that out?
7.  Forty-five years ago, I learned a different version--melody and words--of "Old Smokey" from a traditional singer who recorded it and made a small amount of money from record sales. How different does his version have to be?
8.  For traditional singers who are part of that oral culture from which so much great music has come, is there any allowance in copyright law for them to take a song back into the oral tradition and profit from it?  Probably not.  Why does it work one way but not the other?
9.  What if I take that version I learned 45 years ago, but have largely forgotten, and reconstruct it.  I come up with different words and phrases.  I read on Wikipedia that "Old Smokey" may refer to Clingman's Dome or another peak, so I write and sell verses about two lovers and their relation to mountains and forests.....   
You see how silly this can well as outrageous, when you think of the fortunes that were made and (mostly) not shared during the 1960s "folk revival" by "folk" and "pop" singers strip mining the "free" and "PD" creations of generations of traditional Appalachian singers.  (And Irish, Scottish,etc etc etc etc.....)
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