Even though Christmas is over a month away, preparations for school Christmas productions are well underway. Scripts will have been sourced, roles and parts will have been assigned and rehearsals are about to begin. Lessons and assemblies will start to take on a Christmas theme, so before you pick a favourite Christmas song for your lessons or school production, it’s a good idea to check which songs are considered to be in the public domain* and which aren’t. A lot of the songs we listen to every year aren’t as old as you think and are still protected by copyright, so you will need to ensure you have the right licence in place if you are going to make copies or perform them. And for those in the Public Domain, in many cases the popular arrangements of them that we know and love are still protected by copyright – either because the arranger is still alive, or died during the past 70 years. Don’t forget about the graphic rights, either – these relate to the typographical layout of a piece of printed music.
Songs in the Public Domain*
1. Away in a Manger
Often mistakenly associated with Martin Luther (1483-1546), this anonymous carol first appeared in print in 1885 in the US. The first two stanzas are likely to have originated among German Lutherans in Pennsylvania in the late 19th century*.
2. Silent Night
This popular Christmas Carol originated in Austria in 1818 and was composed by Franz Xaver Gruber to lyrics by Joseph Mohr. Still widely popular today, it’s been recorded by many singers from every music genre.
3. We Wish You a Merry Christmas
The song’s composer and author is not known, but it’s thought to have begun as an English folk song from the West Country in the 1500s. It was a song sung by carollers hired to entertain the wealthy in return for some treats.
4. Deck the Halls
The melody of this popular carol is Welsh and dates back to the 16th century, while the English lyrics were written in 1862 by Thomas Oliphant, a Scottish musician. Fun fact: it wasn’t always associated with Christmas, it was originally a Welsh Winter song about New Year’s Eve called “Nos Galan”.
5. Jingle Bells
American composer, songwriter and organist, James Lord Pierpont, wrote the melody and lyrics for Jingle Bells (originally titled The One Horse Open Sleigh) in 1857. It wasn’t just the title of the song that changed, but some of the lyrics were updated because they were considered too racy for children to perform.
Songs Protected by Copyright
1. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
The story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created by Robert L. May and published by the Mongomery Ward Company in 1939. The story was then adapted into a song by songwriter Johnny Marks and recorded by Gene Autry. It hit the No.1 spot the week of Christmas 1949, and is the second-best selling Christmas song ever with over 150 millions copies sold.
2. Santa Claus is Coming to Town
This popular Christmas song was written by Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie and sung live for the first time by Eddie Cantor on his radio show in 1934. It became an instant hit, with orders for sheet music reaching 300,000 in the first 24 hours.
3. Frosty the Snowman
Also recorded by Gene Autry, Frosty the Snowman was written by Walter Rollins and Steve Nelson in response to the success of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and released in 1950.
4. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
This song was written by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin, and sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis. Thirteen years after its initial success, it was further popularised by Frank Sinatra in the 1950s with amended lyrics.
5. It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year was written in 1963 by Edward Pola and George Wyle, and released by Andy Williams on his Christmas album.
When things get complicated...
Twelve Days of Christmas
These days the Christmas period seems to begin well before Halloween, but traditionally the Christmas period occurred in the twelve days between the birth of Christ (December 25) and the arrival of the Three Wise Men (January 6). It’s thought that this song began as a children’s memory and forfeit game.
A version was originally published in England in 1780, but the song we’re familiar with today comes from English composer, Frederic Austin, in 1909. This is where things get complicated. The words and the melody of 12 Days of Christmas are in the Public Domain, with the exception of perhaps the most famous line. “Five gooooold rings” comes from Austin in the early 20th Century, and since he only died in 1952, this line is still protected by copyright. It is currently owned by Novello & Co.
If you want to use music protected by copyright – whether that’s copyright in the composition itself, the arrangement, or the typographical layout - you’ll need to check you have a licence to do so. You may already hold the PRS/PPL Schools Music Licence, and luckily most schools in the UK are also covered by the Schools Printed Music licence administered by CLA, so why not find out more here: https://cla.co.uk/schools-printed-music-licence
While you’re at it, you can enter this year’s Shake It Up Competition!
*This blog is not legal advice and our view is based on what we believe to be accurate sources. It’s important to remember that even though a song may be in the public domain, this only relates to the original composition of the work and lyrics. Various performances or arrangements may still be protected, so it’s always a good idea to check first.