Question About Changing Words of Copyrighted Songs


We have several people who participate in selecting songs for worship at our church, and a question has come up regarding copyright and whether it is permissible to change the words of a song that is copyrighted.

One person says they had read one time that it was permissible to change words for use in the local church; that is, it may be done if one isn't publishing or broadcasting the work, but only using the changed words in a local worship service (we do not stream or broadcast music from worship in any way.)

However, in trying to research it, I can only seem to find one reference to this, which indicates that permissible changes include that of changing from 3rd to 2nd person is acceptable (perhaps to change it from being sung about God to being sung to God) and that pronouns may be changed ("I" to "we", "me" to "us") In other words, any other changes to words or of phrases are a violation of copyright.

I'm wondering if anyone has firm knowledge of this issue or can refer me to specific resources that clarify this question, or might clear up the question about use in a local church?

Thank you so much.

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There are two sections in the US copyright law that pertain (somewhat) to what you are asking.

The first one concerns creating a derivative work, which is when you take a song and make substantive changes.

[quote] § 106 . Exclusive rights in copyrighted works

Subject to sections 107 through 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following:

     (2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;[/quote]

Here is the official definition of a "derivative work":

[quote] A “derivative work” is a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications, which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a “derivative work”.[/quote]

Usually this section applies when trying to claim a new copyright for changes made to a published work, such as what Weird Al Yankovic does.  So while changing the lyrics of a song is technically creating a derivative work, you are not trying to claim a new copyright, so my view is this section doesn't apply.

The section that truly applies is this:

[quote] § 110 . Limitations on exclusive rights: Exemption of certain performances and displays

Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106, the following are not infringements of copyright:

     (3) performance of a nondramatic literary or musical work or of a dramatico-musical work of a religious nature, or display of a work, in the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly;[/quote]

This section brings into question the very need to secure a license to use copyrighted songs in worship.

The bottom line is we make changes to songs all the time.  We play them in different keys, use different chords, add descants, harmonies, and counter-melodies, etc.  If anything, displaying alternate lyrics could be classified simply as a typo.  And section 110 allows us to use religious songs in religious services without permission.  So I don't think you are violating copyright law, neither its letter nor spirit, by changing some lyrics.

Now, I need to say, and this is very important, that I am not a copyright lawyer, nor even what could be called an expert.  I've done a lot of reading on the topic over the years, but my sentiments above are nonetheless just my opinion.

Do with them what you will.

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

As for the performance in worship aspect as referred to in § 110, I have read elsewhere that there is a difference between performance and congregational singing. That is, if the praise team or a soloist presents the song, it would be a performance and there is no issue, but that is distinct from congregational singing, when we reproduce the words and/or music under a license to guide corporate singing. In that case, when the words are changed, it's stickier because we note that we've licensed the work, but have actually changed it withouth noting that we have done so.

I don't know that this applies to musical changes in the same way in our setting; we don't generally reproduce music, so the mucisians have the liberty to do many of these things as in a way, they are "performing" music - original or adapted works - but it's the words that are the issue because we do reproduce those.

I'm also not a lawyer, so this is all my opinion too... but it would seem that if we could fairly claim a derivative work even if we didn't seek copyright of such, and then simply add notations to indicate that words have been changed, that might be OK. Although as you said since we aren't seeking copyright that doesn't seem to apply. I just haven't been able to find any resource that indicates that this is actually OK (nor clear information that says "you may" or "you may not.") 

I do appreciate your taking time to write. I didn't have any familiarity with the derivative works aspect, and I appreciate your thoughts on the topic.

Community Builder

Interesting discussion. I'm not a copyright lawyer, but I've worked with copyrights and church music quite extensively. The 106 Clause states that the copyright owner has exclusive rights to do and authorize any derivative works. In other words, no changes can be made without the copyright owner's permission. If a song is copyrighted, the words should not be changed without permission even for singing in the local church. Some of the copyright licenses (CCLI) allow for you to arrange, translate, or write instrument parts for a copyrighted song for use in your local church's worship service if a published version is not available. (check CCLI's website for more information).

The 110 exemption referring to performing a copyrighted song in church refers to singing or playing a song - whether by choir, soloist, or congregation. These things don't need licensing or permission. But that is different than reproducing music - either by projecting, photocopying, printing in bulletins, sending to musicians to rehearse, etc.  Doing those things for church use without permission or license, will make you liable for infringing on the copyright holder's rights. 

The reference to displaying a work would seem to refer to the displaying of a work of religious nature - probably some kind of artwork. Displaying it in its original form for people to enjoy and worship would not need permission or license. But copying it, or pasting a copyrighted image into a presentation or bulletin without permission would again be an infringement of the copyright holder's rights.

Thanks again for asking the question. Many people in the church today are busy and overwhelmed, and while they want to do the right thing, they just don't even dare ask the copyright questions. I give you a lot of credit for caring.


Thank you for adding your comments about copyright and music as well as about copyright related to visual arts. I appreciate you taking time to add to the discussion.



Thank you for adding your clarifications.  You're absolutely right that performance and reproduction rights are distinct.  I should have read the statute more carefully.  So, as you said, we are free to sing/play songs without permission, but to display or copy the music/lyrics we are obligated to secure a license (I do have some reservations about the practice of liscensing, but I'll save those for a possible future blog post).

I still don't think changing the lyrics is a big deal.  If you were trying to get other churches to sing your alternate lyrics, and then ultimately you wanted to get credit/royalties for the changes, that would be a clear derivative-work situation.  But what Rebecca is talking about isn't quite so serious (again, just my opinion).

Perhaps the bigger question is why you would want to change the lyrics at all.  If you like the song, is there a compelling reason not to sing it as published?  For my part, I often find updated lyrics in the Psalter to be unneeded and less appealling.  So I prefer to use the older forms (I like to think of them as the "original" lyrics, but that's not always true).  However, in such cases, we would still be using a published version of the lyrics, not something we came up with ourselves.  If there are a few lines/words you just really don't want to sing, I guess you probably shouldn't use that song.

Thanks to all for taking the time to contribute to these forums.

Community Builder

Just one more note about changing the words, calling it a derivative work, and claiming the copyright for yourself. They will not let you do that today- I realize that it was done in the past. But in today's world of copyrights and permissions - publishers and most individuals won't allow another person to hold the copyright for a change or addition to their original work. For example, if you wrote another verse to a hymn that fit really well - and you sent it to the copyright holder  for their permission to use it, they might say that they like it and 'thank you very much, we will let it be a part of our hymn, but we will now own the copyright for the new verse, too".   Sometimes for older (still copyrighted) hymn texts publishers or authors will allow you to do that. Probably more often they will not. But for any contemporary music, absolutely no changes are allowed - no word changes, no additional verses or choruses, no new words to contemporary tunes, etc.

I only know these things because I just obtained all of the copyrights and permissions for the most recent two hymnals that the CRC (Faith Alive) published - Psalms for All Seasons, and Lift Up Your Hearts. Trust me, we tried to do several things that were definitely turned down. And we added some great new verses to hymns but the original copyright holder now owns the copyright to them.

The only way to take freedom with lyrics or tunes is to work with public domain material - then you have real creative freedom and if you write something new you do retain the copyright.

I hope this makes sense. I'd hate for someone to work on something and think they would be able to claim the copyright ownership and then be disappointed.


RE: Copyright for new hymnals (Diane)

I am loving planning worship using the new Lift Up Your Hearts hymnal, but ensuring correct licensing is BIG. DEAL. As in, taking a lot of time to make sure we are doing it right. But I LOVE this hymnal, it's terrific.

RE: Why change lyrics?

Sometimes contemporary and popular worship songs do not reflect reformed theology. All our songs go through a review before we add them to our song list. In some cases, we have chosen just to simply not sing a particular verse of a song if it's questionable. (I know of one song we do this for, and if I can just remember the name of it, I'll post it as an example.)

An example from the news recently was when a church (PCUSA, I *think*) opted not to include the popular hymn, "In Christ Alone" in their new hymnal because they wanted to change the words "Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied" to "Till on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified" and the copyright holder declined to approve the change.

Community Builder

I hear you on all of these points, Rebecca. It does take time, and correct licensing is a big deal - to the point of being a burden on many church staffs. We will be doing a webinar on Copyrights and Worship on Feb. 26 at noon - the goal is to give  practical information and helps for those in the church and allow for questions. (sign ups currently taken through the Network or the hymnal website - )

We have a prayer group, coming together once a month in prayer support fore our sidewalk counselors at the abortion clinic.Typical we write a responsive reading and sing a song. As an example we may sing "Stand up, stand up for Jesus"

Often we add an extra song just created to fit the occasion. Normally the extra is just used at that time among our group. But whould it be permissable to use it during a church service?


Community Builder

In response to your question, Bert, if a song is in the public domain, as Stand Up Stand Up for Jesus is, you may write new stanzas, print them, sing them for worship or whatever use is appropriate. It's only when the hymn or song is still under copyright that you need to be careful. 

Hi Rebecca, I am new to this website and happened upon it by searching the topic of "Does it violate copyright when changing the lyrics of a song?".  

I read through the comments posted on this topic and most if not all pertained to hymnal or contemporary Christian music.

In my circumstance, one of our musicians would like to take a secular song and change words and phrases to make it appropriate for church. My thought , especially after reading this blog, is that it would be a violation without getting permission.  My musician emailed me the following:

 Take a look at this:

Go to the 2nd question under the Frequently Asked Questions section.  (What is a public performance?)

I would think that we (a church) are OK as an exemption.  It doesn’t really get into anything about if the music is altered.  But technically we alter everything we do (we improvise a lot), so I wonder if we could be “written up” since we don’t play things exactly as written?  I would think we can play anything we want any way we want – as long as we are not selling it for profit.  (Now I would think if we recorded stuff we would need permission to sell it even if just raising money for a church.)

What is a public performance?

A public performance is one that occurs either in a public place or any place where people gather (other than a small circle of a family or its social acquaintances). A public performance is also one that is transmitted to the public; for example, radio or television broadcasts, music-on-hold, cable television, and by the internet. Generally, those who publicly perform music obtain permission from the owner of the music or his representative. However, there are a few limited exceptions, (called "exemptions") to this rule. Permission is not required for music played or sung as part of a worship service unless that service is transmitted beyond where it takes place (for example, a radio or television broadcast). Performances as part of face to face teaching activity at a non-profit educational institutions are also exempt. We recommend that you contact your local ASCAP representative who can discuss your needs and how ASCAP can help you.


Can you help me with this situation?

Community Builder

Hi Paige,

Copyright and permissions with regard to worship are restrictive only when reproducing the material - either by photocopying, projecting, etc. The religious exemption for worship permits songs to be sung, played, or taught orally to a congregation without copyright infringement if there is no reproduction involved. In other words, if you want to sing a song (religious or secular) as part of a worship service, it can be sung without copyright infringement. You may play and improvise without worry if no copying or reproducing of the music is involved. If, however, you project the words (or music) while it is sung; or if you copy the music for your musicians, etc, you will need either permission or a copyright license to cover the reproducing  of the lyrics.

As to the issue of changing the lyrics when singing a copyrighted song during worship - I would just ask whether that seems honest and ethical. If the text is copyrighted, it is 'intellectual property' that is legally owned by someone.There seems to be a responsibility on the part of the performer to either honor the original text written by the author, or go to that author and ask permission to change it.

ASCAP is a performance license, and if Christian music is performed outside of a worship service - in a live concert or community gathering - the copyrighted material needs to be covered by ASCAP. But for music that is sung in a worship service, ASCAP (performance) licensing does not apply.

This is my understanding of this issue with regards to worship. You are more than welcome to do your own study and research. Thanks for asking the copyright question.