Christmas carols & IP rights

This holiday season, many of us download and play Christmas carols to our heart's content without any thought to copyright ownership. By downloading and playing these songs, are we infringing on the author's copyright protection? Check out this primer on intellectual property rights, including what's protected, how long it's protected for.

by Stephanie Morrow
updated May 11, 2023 ·  4min read

Another Christmas season is here, which means Christmas trees, presents and, of course, Christmas carols! In today's digital age, many of us may simply open our laptop, download a Christmas carol and play it to our heart's content. We don't usually think about the intellectual property rights of the authors of the carols. Is it legal to put Christmas carols on a website or download them for personal use? Or are we infringing on the original author's copyright protection?

Intellectual property rights

Intellectual property laws allow owners, inventors, and creators of property the protection from unauthorized use. The primary forms of intellectual property are patents, trademarks, and copyrights. Patents protect inventions, while trademarks safeguard distinctive signs, such as the Nike swoosh. Copyrights protect literary and artistic works.

The types of work protected by copyright are far-ranging and include literary works such as books and computer programs; dramatic works and the accompanying words; pictorial, graphics, photographs, and sculptures; motion pictures and audiovisual works; and sound recordings and musical works, including music from plays and dramatic readings, and recordings on tapes, cassettes, and computer disks. Christmas carols are considered musical work.

Are Christmas carols protected?

To qualify for copyright protection, the property must be the original work of the owner, creative to a minimal degree, and in a fixed or tangible form of expression. Then, copyright protection depends on whether the property has been published and the date of the first publication. For works created after Jan. 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. If the work is anonymous, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright will carry for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first.

Because many Christmas carols were published before 1978, the copyright is a bit more complicated. If the copyright was secured on the date the carol was published with an official copyright notice © or on the date of registration if the work was registered in an unpublished form, the copyright had endured protection for 28 years from the date it was secured. The Copyright Act of 1976 then extended the renewal term from 28 to 47 years for copyrights existing on Jan. 1, 1978, or for pre-1978 copyrights restored under the Uruguay Round Agreements Act, making the total copyright protection of these works eligible for a term of 75 years. This renewal term was further extended on Oct. 27, 1998, by an additional 20 years, providing a renewal term of 95 years of protection.

Why can I download Christmas carols that are copyrighted?

A copyrighted work may be used or copied under particular conditions. For example, works published before Jan. 1, 1923, or between 1923 and 1978, and did not contain a valid copyright or the copyright was not renewed, are in the public domain. This means the works can be freely used by anyone.

Many Christmas carols are now in the public domain because they were published before the 1923 copyright deadline. It is believed that the tune for “Deck the Halls” come from Wales in the 16th century, while the English translation first appeared in 1881. “Silent Night,” a poem written by Austrian priest Father Joseph Mohr and composed into a melody by the Austrian headmaster Franz Xaver Gruber, was first published in 1816. “Joy to the World” was first published as a hymn by Isaac Watts in 1719 and adapted and arranged into music by Lowell Mason in 1839.

The fair use exemption allows copyrighted works to be used for educational and academic purposes. Many times, when you go on a website during the holiday season in the hopes of downloading Christmas carols, the copyright at the bottom of the page may state that the lyrics are for “educational purposes only.” This gives educators the protection to use certain amounts of copyrighted material with proper attribution to the author given.

You should still be careful

Christmas carols are readily available for download from the Internet, but this does not mean that they are copyright-free. If you are unclear as to whether a Christmas carol is in the public domain, you can check to see if the carol was either published before 1923 or if the copyright has expired.

An easy way to see if something is copyrighted is by looking for the registered copyright notice © along with the copyright date. If there isn't a copyright notice, however, that does not mean the work isn't copyrighted, as it isn't mandatory to secure a copyright. If you do infringe someone's copyright when there is no registered copyright notice, the owner of the work must notify you that the work is copyrighted. So, do your research and then enjoy your favorite Christmas carols during the holidays.

Make sure your work is protected START MY REGISTRATION
Stephanie Morrow

About the Author

Stephanie Morrow

Stephanie Morrow has been a contributor to LegalZoom since 2005 and has written about nearly all aspects of law, from ta… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.