The first thing you’ll notice when you look at the slides from this resource, is that there are no words on the hymn slides. This is done for two very important reasons, which need a bit of explaining. It was musician/poet/liturgist/story-teller Linnea Good ( who helped us arrive at a way we could share these slides with you that is both moral and legal.

It is important that the people who write the hymns and songs we sing are paid for their work. Most of those poets and musicians see their work as ministry, but it is also their livelihood. Just as clergy and other professionals in ministry should be fairly paid, those involved in the music ministry must be paid. When we use their work in our worship services we have a moral obligation to be honest and fair about this.

There is also a legal obligation. Under Canadian law (and there are similar laws in most other countries) the words and music of a song are “intellectual property” and reproducing their work without permission constitutes theft. Stealing. Under Canadian law, when a person creates a “work”, whether this a song, a poem, a painting, a sermon, photograph, a personal letter or a doghouse for Rover, that work belongs to that person. It doesn’t need to be registered. If you made it, it’s yours.

The only exception is when a person is employed to create that work and does so as part of their employment. Then the copyright belongs to the employer.

Legally and morally, it makes no difference that you are using these works for religious or non-profit purposes.

One solution to the problem is to subscribe to services such as LicenSing or OneLicense. CCLI is another service, which tends to serve the conservative side of the Protestant community. Our congregation subscribes to the first two.

Some church school curricula like Seasons of the Spirit and The Whole People of God provide some music with permission for congregations to use it over a given period of time. You’ll find those resources and more at Wood Lake Publications.

In addition to subscribing to one or more of the above services, you can obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. There is a complete list of the copyright holders in the United Church of Canada’s two hymn books, Voices United and More Voices, on the national church’s website. The two lists are alphabetical so that you may be able to find the information you need, even though you don’t own the two books. Click on this link and it will take you there.

Some other denominations evidently have similar resources on their websites. If you find that not to be the case, you might write to the “powers that be” asking them to facilitate the legal and ethical means whereby congregations can legally project (or duplicate in their bulletins) the various hymns you sing.

Slides without words

The royalty complication is the main reason we don’t include words on the slides you find in HymnSight. When we began to explore those issues, it was evident that chasing down and securing those reproduction rights made the project impossible. We’d need to hire several people to chase them all down, and that would have made this resource very expensive. All the costs would have to be worked into the price of the materials and that would have put it beyond the reach of many. Especially smaller congregations.

There’s another reason we didn’t put the words into the slides. Very often, different faith communities use different versions of a hymn. Last Christmas, Bev and I went to a carol service at a church of another denomination just a few blocks from our home church. We sang Joy to the World. Not only did they have a verse that’s not in our hymn book, but they had made inclusive language changes in their hymn book that were different from the inclusive language changes we use in our denomination. Not better or worse. Just different.

Traditional hymns originally often had many verses. It seems our forebears had more lungpower than we do. It seems unbelievable, but apparently some of those old classics had twenty or more verses.

When such long hymns went out of fashion, people made different choices about which verses they would keep. More recently, people have made different choices in updating the language. So Amazing Grace has different words, depending on the denomination or even the congregation. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

While we almost always project the words in my church, there are some people who like to sing from the hymnbook. Some, who read music, want to see the notes. Others can see the words in a book more clearly. It would be a bit confusing if the words on the screen were different from the words in the book.

So it seemed to be the best solution — to offer you the slides with just the pictures. Then you can put in the words you choose. But that means you need to work out the royalty and other issues in your own way.

Use of HymnSight Images

HymnSight materials are intended only for non-profit use in churches or in church related institutions. That includes congregational newsletters.

If you would like to use them in some other way, please write to us and ask. Send a note to Ralph Milton.

A possible alternative

Some congregations have arrived at what they consider to be a moral solution, even though it is not technically legal. And please understand that I am not in any sense advocating this nor am I giving you legal advice. I’m simply reporting.

These congregations will project the words for a piece of music from a hymn book when they have those books in all the pews — enough purchased copies so that the entire congregation and the choir can sing out of them. In this way, the writer of the hymn text gets the appropriate royalty from the sale of the books. Some claim to have legal opinion that it would be very difficult to prosecute a congregation that uses that practice. As far as I know, this practice has never been challenged in a court of law.

I have discussed the above practice with several professional church musicians who have many published hymns. “That works for me,” they say. “As long as we receive the royalties due to us, we have nothing to complain about.” Others say “no”! It is not legal; therefore it should not be done.

Public domain

Most of the grand old traditional hymns are in the public domain. In Canada, a work moves into the public domain 50 years after the death of the person who created those words and/or music in the first place. However, that’s not true in all countries.

Look at the copyright information that should be at the bottom of each hymn or song. If it’s one of the grand, old, classic hymns, there’s a good chance it’s in the public domain. The dates will tell you.

It gets tricky when the words or the music has been adapted or altered. The adaptations may be under copyright while the original version may be in the public domain. For instance, the very popular song “How Great Thou Art” is a Swedish folk song. The melody is in the public domain but the arrangement and the words are copyright.

Sometimes you can find the information you need by checking on the web.