Public domain refers to songs and other forms of intellectual property that are not owned or controlled by one person or organization. You are free to use these for any purpose you wish. In the United States, music and lyrics published in 1922 or earlier are considered to be in the public domain. Not all countries follow these same laws for copyrighted material. While a public domain song is free to be used, a new copyrighted arrangement or recording of a public domain song is not. In other words, while the original music for Away in a Manger is public domain, a particular recording or arrangement of it may still be copyrighted.
Examples of Public Domain Christmas Songs
As a general rule, most of what was written in the 20th century is still under copyright protection. However, many Christmas carols pre-date copyright years and are considered public domain. These include:
More Free Public Domain Christmas Music
If a Christmas song is in the public domain, it may be used without worrying about the legal ramifications of copyright law violations. When in doubt, assume that copyright protection applies or contact a qualified attorney to help you perform the necessary research to see if a song can be used for your project. Some artists have graciously given their arrangements to the public, so you may find some unique and modern arrangements within the public domain as well.
If you simply want to have a copy of the lyrics to your favorite public domain Christmas carols, there are a few websites that offer printable lyrics. Note that the websites may also have lyrics to songs not in the public domain, so be sure to check it with the list above before using the lyrics.
- Christmas Corner: Get a 30-page printable PDF file of favorite Christmas music.
- Blue Bonkers: Printable lyric sheet for carolers, and the pages include holiday graphics.
Songs for Listening
While many of the songs in free Christmas music aren't public domain, the artists performing the music sometimes offer their renditions free. Of course, you can't alter or use the albums/songs for other venues, but most contributing artists allow the following uses:
- Unrestricted personal listening on a computer, tablet, phone, iPod or burning a personal CD
- Burn CD copy to give as a gift
- Send MP3 email attachment
Be sure to read rights given to you on the website listing. Some artists give non-profit organizations the rights to use their work. Songs available online include:
- Peach on Earth: From the album "A Rarebird in a Pear Tree, Vol. 3" (entire album is available for free download or a donation).
- On Christmas Eve: Written by Mike Hennessy and performed by Acoustic Bloom.
Enjoying the Sounds of Christmas
These are just a few of the possible sources where you can find public domain Christmas classics. If you run across a song that you're unsure if it's in public domain, double check before using it.