Ho ho ho! Holiday time is upon us—and with all the celebration, festivities and family time comes all the nostalgic music we love so much.
It seems like every year shopping malls and radio stations start piping Christmas music earlier and earlier—whether it’s the classic hits or a new cover album from your favorite A-list pop star.
So, it’s no surprise that Christmas songs are among the most streamed music in existence—Mariah Carey’s instant classic “All I Want For Christmas is You”, has literally been streamed over a billion times on Spotify.
Christmas songs are among the most streamed music in existence.
So, if you’re interested in making a Christmas album of your own may be wondering—how does Christmas song licensing work?
Not every famous Christmas song is in the public domain, even if some of the classic ones are from decades past.
If you want to cover a classic Christmas song, there’s a few things to keep in mind to make sure everyone is collecting the right royalties.
In this article, we’ll explain how to identify public domain Christmas songs and we’ll explain how you can license cover songs for any track that’s still not public domain.
Ready to start planning your Christmas album? Let’s get these chestnuts roasting!
What are public domain Christmas songs?
Public domain Christmas songs are songs that have lost their copyright protection—meaning anyone can use the lyrics and melodies to create their own version and sell as their own.
The key to understanding how to identify whether a Christmas song is in the public domain is to find its original publishing date.
As of 2021 in the United States—any work from before 1926 is most likely in the public domain.
As a general rule of thumb—as of 2021 in the United States—any work from before 1926 is most likely in the public domain.
So if you want to cover classic Christmas songs like O Christmas Tree, Silent Night or Jingle Bells you won’t need any special license because they were all written before 1925.
Your best bet is to Google the publishing date or look in a database of public domain songs.
However, newer songs like White Christmas, Little Drummer Boy or Jingle Bell Rock will require you to obtain the proper licenses or clearance to use in your own music—whether you’re sampling or covering the song.
Fortunately, you can easily pick up a cover song license from digital music distribution services like LANDR Distribution, the only distribution service that offers cover song licensing for a one-time fee.
Not sure whether a Christmas song is in the public domain? Your best bet is to Google the publishing date or look in a database of public domain songs.
In general, traditional songs, hymns and carols that have been around for over a century are fair game. If the original recording of the song has electric guitar in it… you might be out of luck.
If the original recording of the song has electric guitar in it… you might be out of luck.
For example, you can’t sample Boney M’s rendition of “Angels We Have Heard on High” without sample clearance since they own the mechanical royalty.
List of popular public domain Christmas songs
To help you out here’s a list of popular Christmas songs that are currently in the public domain.
You can use the melodies and lyrics for these songs freely without fear of violating any copyright laws.
1. “Jingle Bells”
2. “Silent Night”
3. “O Christmas Tree”
4. “Joy to the World”
5. “Handel’s Messiah”
6. “We Three Kings”
7. “O Little Town of Bethlehem”
8. “The Nutcracker Theme”
9. “Deck the Halls”
10“Hark the Herald Angels Sing”
11. “Good King Wenceslas”
12. “Angels We Have Heard on High”
13. “Twelve Days of Christmas”
14. “The First Noel”
15. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”
16. “Come All Ye Faithful”
How to cover a non-public domain Christmas song
If you want to cover a classic tune that’s still in the public domain, you’ll need to purchase a cover song license.
Fortunately, cover song licenses are not difficult to obtain—LANDR currently offers cover song licensing for releases on LANDR Distribution for a one-time fee.
Once you have a cover song license for the particular song you’re covering you may freely release it under your name or project’s name—of course you’ll still have to pay songwriting royalties to the owner, but you’ll keep the mechanical royalty.
To help you out here’s a list of classic Christmas songs that are not in the public domain.
1.“All I Want for Christmas is You” – Mariah Carey
2. “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting Over an Open Fire)” – Mel Tormé
3. “Jingle Bell Rock” – Bobby Helms
4. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” – Johnny Marks
5. “Feliz Navidad” – Jose Feliciano
6. “Silver Bells” – Jay Livingston, Ray Evans
7. “Little Drummer Boy” – Catherine K. Davis
8. “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reigndeer” – Johnny Marks
9. “Christmas Lights” – Lil Yachty
10. “Frosty the Snowman” – Steve Nelson, Walter E. Rolands
I think you get the idea—electric guitar and sounds like it wasn’t composed for a church choir? Probably not a public domain christmas song.
Your Christmas cover album is still a go!
You’ll just need to grab some cover song licenses for any tracks that aren’t in the public domain.
Head over to LANDR Distribution and grab your cover song licenses for that next release.
Happy holidays and best of luck with your Christmas cover album!
Alex Lavoie works as a staff writer at LANDR by day and moonlights as a drummer for folk-rock outfit The Painters.
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