Are Christmas Songs Copyrighted?

As a singer, covering a Christmas song is a great way for you to get discovered and experiment with a different genre. Given how many Christmas covers there are, getting a license might not seem necessary.

But, is that really the case? Can you use these songs without permission?

It depends. One thing is certain, though – you need to make sure that the song you want to cover is in the public domain if you don’t intend to purchase the rights to it.

It’s common for people to think that all Christmas music can be reproduced freely. However, not all Christmas songs are in the public domain and it’s necessary to check if you need to get a license to make and sell a cover. 

With the exception of arrangements protected by copyright, you don’t need to get permission, credit the original artist or pay royalties to use songs in the public domain. For all other songs, you’ll need to look into licensing options.

Before you press record, take a moment to read this article.

What Is A Public Domain Song?

Public domain music is music whose copyright protection has expired. Once songs lose their copyright, they can be recreated, reproduced and sold by anyone. 

Based on the Copyright Act of 1976, a song may be considered public domain for a variety of reasons. Generally, songs become freely usable between 70 and 95 years after they were created, published and registered. In the United States, as of 2022, most songs and musical works from 1926 or earlier are in the public domain.

With that being said, if you’ve found a song you want to cover, be sure to check its publishing date online or in a public domain database.

This information can be found in several ways:

  • A Google search 
  • Wikipedia
  • Public domain music databases such as ChoralWiki or PD Info

If it’s stated that the song has no composer, was published before 1926 or is a folk song, there is a good chance that it belongs to the public domain. 

In general, most classic or traditional holiday songs are public domain. That means if you want to cover one of the Christmas classics, chances are you won’t need any special licensing since the majority of them were written before 1926. 

Note that this list is intended only as a starting point for research and does not count as proof of public domain status. We recommend doing your own thorough research.

  • “Angels We Have Heard on High”
  • “Away In a Manger”
  • “Deck the Halls”
  • “Go Tell it on the Mountain”
  • “Jingle Bells”
  • “Joy to the World”
  • “O Holy Night”
  • “Silent Night”
  • “Twelve Days of Christmas”

You can find more titles in this list of public-domain Christmas songs.

How To Legally Cover A Christmas Song

If the Christmas song you want to cover or sample is not yet in the public domain, you’ll need to get a license to use it. 

Licensing music comes in many forms. If you want to cover and release a song only for audio you’d get a mechanical license (also referred to as mechanical rights). With this license, you’re able to legally sell and share your cover as streaming audio, a downloadable file or physical media. To use the song in other formats, speak with one of our intellectual property attorneys for more guidance on the various license options available. 

To get mechanical rights to a song, you need to directly contact the publisher and master recording owner to ask for permission. Finding out who owns the copyright to a song can be a challenge as songwriters often sign contracts with publishing companies to deal with licensing and some even transfer their ownership rights to the publisher. 

Luckily, there are several online resources you can use to find a song’s owner. The US Copyright Office’s public catalog is a good place to begin your search. 

Once you have the license, keep in mind that while you may freely release your Christmas cover and earn mechanical royalties, you’ll still be required to pay songwriting royalties.

Sanchelima & Associates, P.A. is one of the leading intellectual property law firms in South Florida. With over 40 years of experience, we have represented the IP interests of a wide array of businesses in the US and abroad, including Fortune 500 companies. Whether you need a consultation or prosecution of a patent, trademark, or copyright, we can protect your business’s interests. 
Contact us to book your consultation!

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