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Copyright on published hymns

06 October 2017

Write, if you have any answers to the questions listed at the end of this section, or to add to the answers given below


Your answers


Am I correct in thinking that a hymn tune or a printed tune in a hymn book that is more than 50 years old is free from copyright? What exactly does the law say?


The current law covering hymn tunes, like any other piece of music, is covered by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, up­­dated in line with European law in 1996.

Copyright lasts from creation of the work to the end of the 70th year after the creator’s death. Where a work is made up of music and lyrics by different creators, both music and lyrics are covered until 70 years after the death of the last of the creators to die.

Thus, The Crucifixion by John Stainer is still under copyright, even though Stainer died in 1901, as the lyricist, W. J. Sparrow-Simpson, died in 1952. This would, therefore, mean that the hymn “All for Jesus” is still under copyright.

The 70-year rule also applies to editors of otherwise public-domain music, and it should be noted that many hymn tunes — for example, in The New English Hymnal — have been edited by (among others) Ralph Vaughan Williams.

There is also separate copyright in the typesetting of a collection, such as a hymn book. This lasts for 25 years from publication. So, unedited public-domain hymn tunes in a book published before 1992 are free from copyright.

Tim Ruffer (Head of Publishing, Royal School of Church Music)



Copyright is a maze, depending on which country you live in and where the document was printed. A hymn will have a composer and an author, both of these will be owed royalties for life, plus 70 years after their death.

Here are two examples of this in the case of Martin Shaw. The tune Bunessan is his arrangement of a Gaelic carol tune, popularly set to Eleanor Farjeon’s poem “Morning has broken”. In the 1970s, Cat Stevens rearranged the tune and made the hymn into a pop song — still, according the the Farjeon Estate, the most popular song he ever wrote. Because the tune was an arrangement of an existing tune, there is no royalty due to the Martin Shaw Estate, but royalties are due to the Eleanor Farjeon Estate.

In the case of folk tunes noted down for the first time by a com­poser, e.g. the Czech carol “The Birds”, then a royalty fee is payable. Hymns sung in church constitute a “performance”; so a royalty is pay­able on that, too. Fortunately, there is usually an annual cover-all fee to Churches for the use of their hymn books, and the division of royalties is sorted out by their rights depart­ment; so we don’t have to think about it.

Occasionally, I answer requests for Martin Shaw’s hymns to be sung in churches that have signed up to other hymn books.

Isobel Platings (CEO, The Martin Shaw Society)

London W13


Your questions


Both the Old and the New Testa­ments are clear that “the word of the Lord” is something “out there”, out in the ether, it would appear: e.g. “the word of the Lord came to Solomon” (or Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jonah, etc.), and “In the beginning was the Word.” “The word of the Lord” is, therefore, not something that can be contained or controlled by human beings, but is far greater than that. We could reasonably say during the liturgy, “In this is the word of the Lord,” but we don’t. So, why is it that we routinely repeat a piece of perfidi­ous nonsense, if not idolatry?

A. H.


After attending an installation of new honorary cathedral canons, I cannot be the only person to wonder, after hearing the Bishop’s “instrument” read, what the rights and appurtenances etc. of such appointments typically are. Do they vary from cathedral to cathedral, or have they been ironed out by mod­ern reforms?

A. P.


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