Don't Let a Lawsuit Drain Your Christmas Cheer: Holiday Music and the Public Domain

-This article was written by our friend Alex Holz and E.J. Dortch from Limelight.-

Christmas music has always been held in high regard by artists and listeners alike.  Unlike most other genres, Christmas music provides a confusing guessing game in determining if a Christmas carol or hymn is in the public domain (and therefore doesn’t require a mechanical license and royalty payments!)

Many will recognize these songs as staples of holiday cheer, and can easily hum the melody if not sing most of the words.  Most of these songs go back to the 1800’s with “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas” dating all the way back to the 1500’s.

One important point to remember: even though a song may be found in the public domain, a copyrighted arrangement of that song may not be, so always check first.  An excellent rule of thumb – if you used sheet music to learn it, you can find the copyright information there.

Here is a list of some top Christmas songs that are in the public domain

Christmas Songs in the public domain
•    “Deck The Halls”
•    “The First Noel”
•    “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing”
•    “Jingle Bells”
•    “Joy To The World”
•    “Come All Ye Faithful”
•    “Silent Night”
•    “The Twelve Days of Christmas”
•    “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”
Many classic Christmas songs that are presumed to be in the public domain are in fact copyrighted, so make sure to double-check your sources before deciding a track is public domain. PDInfo Online ( is a good starting point if the liner notes and copyright information are unavailable.

Here are just a few notable songs that would require a mechanical license:

Christmas Songs NOT in the public domain
• “Winter Wonderland” (Written by: Felix Bernard, Richard B. Smith)
• “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” (Mel Tormé, Robert Wells)
• “Sleigh Ride” (Leroy Anderson, Mitchell Parish)
• “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” (Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin)
• “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” (Fred Coots, Haven Gillespie)
• “White Christmas” (Irving Berlin)
• “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” (Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne)
• “Jingle Bell Rock” (Joseph Carleton Beal, James Ross Boothe)
• “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” (Johnny Marks)
• “Little Drummer Boy” (Katherine K. Davis, Henry V. Onorati, Harry Simeone)
• “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” (Edward Pola, George Wyle)
• “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” (Walter Kent, Kim Gannon, Buck Ram)
• “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” (Johnny Marks)
• “Silver Bells” (Jay Livingston, Ray Evans)
• “Feliz Navidad” (Jose Feliciano)
• “Frosty The Snowman” (Steve Nelson, Walter E. Rollins)
• “A Holly Jolly Christmas” (Johnny Marks)
• “Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)” (Gene Autry, Oakley Haldeman)
• “Carol Of The Bells” (Peter J. Wilhousky, Mykola Leontovich)

Check out Limelight for the simplest way to clear cover songs.

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