Can We Not Copyright Hymns

From a secular perspective, it is at least polite for the writers of a piece of music to receive compensation for the use of the song, assuming they want it. Even if it’s just to encourage more music to be composed, the writers should be fairly rewarded for their work in some way. After all, we wouldn’t want a talented songwriter to not have the time to sit at their piano because they are busy doing other things to put bread on the table.

There's nothing wrong with an artist saying, “You have to pay me to use my song at your event”, though usually they don’t say it directly and use the help of a licensing body like Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI). Most parishes and venues that I’ve been to have some form of blanket license that they pay an annual fee for, allowing them to use the songs they want without having to get explicit permission for each one.

This is a decent solution, balancing the work to get permission with what is probably a lesser amount of funding going to the artists than if they were to license tracks individually. Obviously, it doesn’t prevent a “bad actor” like an overcontrolling record label from taking a larger cut than they should and paying the artist in literal peanuts, but that’s another complicated problem for a different article.

Assuming that a person performing a musical work is doing so within the permissions given by the licensing body, both the necessity of politeness and a Christian’s moral obligations could be deemed fulfilled. But there is another angle.

The Catholic Church has a history of promoting the arts. Ever since Christianity was made legal in the Roman empire, there have been artists funded at least in part through the Church, making beautiful things. There’s a long line of architecture, artwork, and music created before we had any kind of legal system to protect copyright. People were employed, in some way or another, for the sake of creating beauty. It wasn’t a glamorous job, but they weren’t in it to build their own renown.

Could this idea be made to apply to the performing of music in the twenty-first century? I think so! During the first two decades of my life, growing up in a Protestant denomination, I saw the overarching leadership body of that denomination run a music department, providing some level of funding, compensation, and distribution of music created by their composing members. (I was even in a children’s choir for a recording, bribed by my dad’s offer of an A&W float.) While that music department suffered somewhat with the transition away from physical media, I think there is some things that could be learned from a Catholic perspective.

What if there was archdiocesan funding for the role of songwriter-in-residence, with their work endorsed by the bishop? With the music published under some sort of license like a less-vulgar version of WTFPL, allowing free use of the work, a secular composer might worry that they not make enough money, but because this job would be paid for by the Church, the songwriter wouldn’t need to worry about making a living wage. At the same time, it would allow for the bishop and priests to encourage their music teams to use beautiful sacred music written explicitly for the contexts of Mass and other activities within the parish. Of course, it wouldn’t initially save parishes the cost of their existing license subscription, but over time, that could become a viable choice, especially if the idea caught on in other dioceses.

I believe that if artists could receive a living wage from a secondary source, such as the Church, the need to license their work would be greatly diminished. It would require some level of humility on the sake of the songwriters, but if they are truly working from the perspective of furthering the Church’s efforts, it would provide a stronger benefit for all parties involved then the modern secular music license-copyright system that most currently use for releasing their music.