Ask Ambrose: Printing Words of Anthems – Legal or Not?

Dear Ambrose

Would you please address copyright issues with printing anthem texts in bulletins. Is there an issue here? 

Signed, Trying to do the right thing

Dear Trying to do the right thing,

There is never an issue reprinting a public domain anthem text, but determining if something is public domain is more difficult. Anything written before Jan. 1, 1923, is legally public domain and free to use. Anything after that date is most likely still under copyright, but not always.

Some publishers take the position that if an anthem was purchased for a choir, reprinting any of their copyrighted texts in a bulletin for the general benefit of understanding would be considered fair use, since it is not reducing the sale of any items.  It would be a good idea to contact the copyright holders to determine if this is an issue.
Unfortunately, licensing agencies such as do not cover the reprinting of anthem texts in bulletins for those still under copyright.
All publishers require that you include the copyright notice with the text in question, along with attribution of the author, so that people are aware of its genesis.
It is helpful to include anthem texts for the congregation’s edification: they can read the good poetry (which it should be, right?) or the scriptural basis of the anthem (anything to help scriptural literacy) as a means of reflection and understanding.  Authors should be recognized just as composers are regularly credited.
David Schaap for St. Ambrose