Christmas Carols and Intellectual Property

With the holiday season come the resurrection of Christmas songs to fit the time of year. Homes, parties, churches, malls and streets are filled with songs like “We wish you a merry Christmas”, “Jingle bell” etc. signifying that Christmas and New year is now here.

Some of these songs date back to the early centuries and some are actually quite recent. “Silent Night” go as far back as 1816, “Joy to the world” by Isaac Watts was published in 1719, and the popular “We wish you a merry Christmas” is an English carol from the 1500s. Even “the twelve days of Christmas” stretches back to the 16th century.

While humming, singing or screaming these songs, have you ever wondered if they are protected by Intellectual property law? Who owns the right to these popular songs and is permission needed for their performance? Notably, Christmas songs constitute artistic works covered by Copyright so far there is sufficient effort and creativity from the creator.

These interesting questions are centred on Public domain and license in intellectual property. What does this mean? If a song is in the public domain, it can be used and performed anywhere and at anytime without any infringement on the singers right. However, where a song is not in the public domain, a license is needed to use and perform it publicly.

“Public domain” are works owned by the whole public. This could arise when the intellectual property rights to such works have expired or been forfeited by the creator, hence making them open to free use by the public.

On the other hand, a “license” refers to an agreement between the owner of the Ip right (licensor) to authorize another (licensee) to use the rights in exchange for a monetary value or fee. This royalty is paid to the song writer whenever the song is copied or performed to the public. A license is needed anytime a song is used for any commercial or business presentations excluding non-profits.

Relating this to Christmas songs and carols, a number of them are already in the public domain as they have been around for over hundred years and thus outlived their copyright protection. This includes “Jingle Bells”, “Deck the halls”, “O Holy Night”, “Silent Night” amongst others.

However, more recent Christmas songs and carols do not fall under this category and thus require a license for any form of public performance. Thus, it is important to check if that particular carol or song is in the public domain or still protected under copyright. A quite popular Christmas carol not in the public domain is “Santa Claus is coming to town” written in 1932 by Joh Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespies which although is close to its copyright expiration, remains protected today. Others are “Have yourself a merry little Christmas”, “Little drummer boy”, “White Chrsitmas” etc. You need a license for their public performance or wait a very long time for them to become public works.


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