Several readers have asked whether they can or should run their entire church music programme based on public-domain or other such copyright-free music.
The short answer - without looking at a church's particular needs and current repertoire is "yes, this is possible".
- For hymns, there is a wealth of public domain material - and this post from Nick Alexander explains many of the benefits of using it.
- Psalms can be a little more tricky. They don't appear to be well represented in the hymns published prior to 1922 (America) or more than 70 years since the versifier's(*) death (Europe). However the Music-for-Mass website provides one set of psalms and propers that are free-use "in church" - which appears to be broadly defined. And it's often possible to find a free-use setting of the psalm refrain, and use it with read verses.
So having established that a free-use-only programme is possible - is it a good idea? Obviously it is for a church which is cash-strapped and cannot even afford a church-copyright-licence. But most churches aren't in that situation. They have resources, which they want to steward wisely, and based on Christian principles. That need information to weigh up the costs and issues of free-use vs a widely-based music programme.
So why isn't a 100% free-use music programme a good idea?
- Using only public-domain and copyright-free materials may stop members of your congregation off from knowing the hymns currently used in other parishes in your denomination and/or churches in your area. This might not hurt you immediately - once you've learned enough public-domain material to pray the whole year through. But it will harm ecumenical relationships. And it will fracture the wider church community when people from neighbouring parishes cannot sing together in worship.
- It may make you seem old-fashioned. Of course this will come down to how you present the traditional hymns: there are very few that cannot be played in modern styles. But the sense may linger.
- If your church runs schools, then it may increase the gap between the religious music your children hear and sing in school vs in church.
- It may stop you from using new musical works that better reflect your current physical and cultural situation. For example, in the southern hemisphere it would stop you from using most of the newer Christmas carols which recognize that Christmas happens in summertime not wintertime.
- It's not a fair way to treat current composers
Throughout history, there have been artists who are called to reflect God's message in their time through lyrics and music. Telling them that we won't use their work unless they either die for 90 years, or let us use it for free, is not providing a these workers with just rewards for their labours.
Free-use materials, and in particular public domain hymns and religious songs are great to have as part of any musical programme. They are valuable for situations outside of worship-service-in-the-church-building, where you may need a performance licence to even sing a modern hymn. And they're great for small budget-strapped churches that simply cannot afford anything else
But if your church has budget for staff, buildings and heating, then it's difficult to justify not committing at least some of your resources to "modern" music, of whatever genre, to use alongside the copyright-free hymn selections.
(*) There are interesting legal arguments about the exactly copyright status of settings of biblical texts which were translated by one publisher, and then put into verses by someone else. But most churches haven't the time or energy to follow these: they simply need worship resource material they can use without worrying about the legalities.