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Skip Navigation LinksHome > About > Newsletter Articles > Winter 2011
Christmas Songs and the Public Domain

Christmas music adds sparkle, magic, and warm feelings to an already wonderful season. Full of tradition and sentimentality, these are the most beloved songs for many people, religious or not. Perhaps that is why eleven of the top twenty most covered songs are Christmas songs.

Many Christmas songs date back to the 1800s. These songs are well known and they stir memories and emotions from happy Christmases past. When selecting songs for your holiday album, it is useful to consider which of these cherished classics are in the Public Domain and which are copyrighted. Copyrighted songs require permission from the owner in the way of a mechanical license; Public Domain songs require no permission and can save you money on licensing costs.

So, how can you be sure which holiday classics are in the Public Domain and which are copyrighted? Read on to learn the answer to this question and more.

What is Public Domain?
Public Domain is a term for songs where legal copyright protections have expired and no permission from the owner is required to use the work.

What makes a song Public Domain?
Any song written before 1923 is in the Public Domain and does not require licensing for any use. One exception is sound recordings, where Public Domain status is handled differently from songs (compositions). Currently no sound recordings are in the Public Domain in the United States. Also, publishers often copyright new arrangements of Public Domain works. Even if the song itself is Public Domain, if you play from a copyrighted sheet music arrangement, you need permission.

How can I know for sure that a song is Public Domain?
The easiest and best way to know for sure whether a song is in the Public Domain is to submit it to us for a free search. We research the Public Domain status of the song for you so that you can be one hundred percent certain. If the work is in the Public Domain, we will tell you and you won't have to get a license. If it is copyrighted, we can help you get the permission you need to distribute your recording legally.

How can I research Public Domain status myself?
If you would like to research for yourself whether a song is in the Public Domain, here's how to do it: First, try searching Wikipedia for the song title plus the word 'song' at the end. For example, if you want to search the Beatles song "Here Comes the Sun", enter the search phrase "Here Comes the Sun Song". This will help you find the Wikipedia song page. There, you can find the year the song was released. If the release date is before 1923, if the song has no composer, or if it is a folk song, the song is in the Public Domain. If you cannot find the song in Wikipedia, you can also try searching the databases at PDInfo.com, CPDL.org, and cyberhymnal.org. Finally, Google is also a good resource. As long as you can find solid evidence that the song was written before 1923, you are clear.

What must I do if a song is not in the Public Domain?
If you want to record a song that is not Public Domain you need a Mechanical License. A Mechanical License allows you to legally distribute your recording of a copyrighted song you did not write (cover song). Reputable manufacturers will require Proof of Licensing before they make your CDs.

How do I get a Mechanical License?
We can help you get a Mechanical License to legally record your version of any song legally in 1-2 business days. To start, we simply need some information about your project and about the song you want to use. You can submit that information to us online by clicking here, or you can call us at 1-800-360-5192.

Do I need a Mechanical License for Public Domain songs?
No. You can submit your entire song list to us and we will research the Public Domain status for you. If we find a song to be in the Public Domain you will not have to pay anything. If you already purchased your licenses, we will refund the entire amount paid for any Public Domain songs.

Which Christmas songs are in the Public Domain?
Below is a list of the most common Christmas songs and their Public Domain or copyright status. For complete lists, visit PDInfo's list of Public Domain Christmas Songs, Wikipedia's List of Christmas carols (any song published before 1923 is PD), and Wikipedia's List of Christmas hit singles (click the song title to learn the year the song was released).
Public Domain Copyrighted
Song Year
Angels from the Realms of Glory 1867
Angels We Have Heard on High 1700
Auld Lang Syne 1711
Away In a Manger 1887
Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella 1553
Coventry Carol Traditional
Deck the Halls 1800
The First Noel 1833
Gesu Bambino 1917
God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen 1827
Go Tell It on the Mountain 1865
Good King Wenceslaus 1853
Hark, the Herald Angels Sing 1840
Here We Come A-Caroling 4600
The Holly and the Ivy 1871
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day 1872
I Saw Three Ships 1833
In the Bleak Midwinter Traditional
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear 1850
Jingle Bells 1857
Jolly Old St. Nicholas 1870
Joy to the World 1836
Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming 1559
O Christmas Tree 1800
O Come All Ye Faithful 1751
O Come, O Come, Emanuel Traditional
O Holy Night 1847
O Little Town of Bethlehem 1868
Once in Royal David's City Traditional
Silent Night 1818
Toyland 1903
The Twelve Days of Christmas 1500
Up on the Housetop 1870
The Wassail Song 1600
We Three Kings 1857
We Wish You a Merry Christmas 1500
What Child is This? 1865
While Shepherds Watched 1728
Song Year
All I Want For Christmas is My Two Front Teeth 1948
All I Want for Christmas is You 1994
Blue Christmas 1964
The Chipmunk Song 1958
The Christmas Song 1944
Christmas Time is Here 1965
The Christmas Waltz 1954
Do You Hear What I Hear 1962
Feliz Navidad 1970
Frosty the Snowman 1950
Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer 1979
Happy Christmas (War is Over) 1971
Happy Holiday 1942
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas 1943
Here Comes Santa Claus 1947
Holly Jolly Christmas 1965
Home For The Holidays 1954
I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus 1952
I'll Be Home for Christmas 1943
It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas 1951
Jingle Bell Rock 1957
Last Christmas 1984
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! 1945
The Little Drummer Boy 1955
Little Saint Nick 1963
Marshmallow World 1949
Merry Christmas Darling 1970
The Most Wonderful Time of The Year 1963
Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree 1958
Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer 1939
Run Rudolph Run 1958
Santa Baby 1953
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town 1934
Silver Bells 1950
Sleigh Ride 1948
Step Into Christmas 1973
The Little Drummer Boy 1955
We Need A Little Christmas 1966
White Christmas 1940
Winter Wonderland 1934

Congratulations on the release of your holiday album. Good luck with your planning and as always, let us know if you need any help.

Mark Meikle
November 3, 2011

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Mark Meikle is the President and co-founder of independent record label Legacy Productions, Inc. Specializing in churches, schools, community groups, and independent artists, Legacy produces dozens of albums each year from start to finish. Legacy's licensing service, easySongLicensing.com helps musicians releasing albums in small quantities obtain the necessary permission to record songs that other people wrote.

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