Copying Hymns & Music


Have you ever wondered how the composers and publishers of music used in liturgy (hymns, Mass settings, etc) are paid for the time and effort involved in writing, producing and distributing their work?

‘One upon a time’, parishes purchased sets of hymnbooks for the assembly to use. Income from the sale of hymnbooks compensated publishers for the costs involved in producing the material and for the payments they made to composers who had given permission for their work to be included.

At parish and school liturgies these days the words of hymns are often projected onto overhead screens or printed in orders of service. This is cheaper than buying and caring for hymnbooks and offers greater flexibility in the selection of liturgical music.

How are those who write and publish music compensated for their efforts if parishes and schools buy just one copy of hymn collections and reproduce hymn words on parish bulletins or on PowerPoint?

The answer is that they aren't, unless parishes and schools pay for the right to use their music as hymnbook publishers do. It concerns me greatly that hymn sheets and PowerPoint slides frequently have nothing on them to acknowledge the composer and publisher of the music, which suggests that the music is being used without permission and payment.

I have heard it said that no one should have to pay to use liturgical music because composers and publishers should be happy to do God’s work for free. We would never expect a plumber to fix the leaking baptismal font or a tiler to repair the church roof without payment. Music writers are no less entitled to be paid for their time and efforts.

Where will the good composers of church music come from if they are expected to work as a labour of love? Everyone knows what happens when you pay peanuts. Surely we can expect even less for no payment at all!

Composers and text writers have ownership of what they have written and we can no more take their work and use it without giving something in return than we can with the plumber or tiler. If we use what is theirs by right, we must ask permission and pay a fee.

This is the issue of 'copyright'. It simply means that if we provide the words for liturgical celebration by any method other than giving out hymnbooks, we must get permission to do so, acknowledge the source, and compensate the rightful owner of the work in some way.

It should never happen that music is handed around at choir practice, or hymn words printed in booklets or projected on a screen unless each piece is clearly labelled with the name of the composer and date of composition, the publisher, and a statement of permission to use.

It is not necessary to get copyright permission if everyone involved in writing a particular piece has been dead for more than 50 years. Such work is classified as being 'in the public domain' and may be copied freely. Much of the music we use in liturgy, however, does not belong in this category.

Doing the right thing with copyright is a matter of justice and a relatively simple matter. How to manage this will be explained in next week’s column.


Elizabeth Harrington