How does copyright work with translated songs?


I would like to seek your guidance, brother, regarding the translation of English hymns into another language.

Here in the local congregation where I belong, we are working on a project to create a new hymnal (words only) where the text is in a local dialect. All of my work (written or translated) are from public-domain hymns. An evangelist (a former pulpit preacher) came to visit us.  He also has a passion for the translation of hymns. He showed me his translations of some English hymns and some copyrighted church songs. I also showed him mine, which I didn't plan to include in my work but were done for my personal use only. Examples of these songs are "Because He Lives," "In Christ Alone," "Bless the Lord," "Give Thanks," "Highly Exalted" and "When I Go Home."

I would like to know, brother, if we can also print in our own dialect these new songs that are still copyrighted since we are singing them without musical instruments and without notes in the pages of our songbook. Would this kind of arrangement be acceptable and not illegal for us to use, considering that we won't be selling the work?

Please guide us regarding these things, brother, as we want to sing praises to God without any worries that what we are singing is illegal in the eyes of men.

Thank you so much. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.


I am not an expert on international copyright laws so I can only tell you what I understand, but my understanding might not match what a court would decide.

There are two parts to a hymn: the lyrics or words and the music.  Each is given a copyright that covers all forms of reproduction. This includes printed copies, recordings, and even singing in a congregation. A translation of the lyrics of a song is considered a derivative work and, thus, the original author still controls the use.

One way to get permission is to contact the author or the current holder of the copyrights. Michael Eldridge, Matthew Bassford, and Charli Couchman are all alive. You can ask them for permission to translate their songs and state how you plan to use them. Some may ask for a small fee, depending on how you plan to use the songs. You can then decide if it is worth the cost.

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