He was once about as rude and judgmental toward me personally as anyone ever has been. But I completely believe his heart was right on this — and that he was genuinely spiritually enthused about this particular project. And not only the project, but the potential for people to use his work.
What was the project? It was a compilation of song lyrics, titled Let the People Sing! and dated 1982. The title page carried the title, the date, and the name of the compiler. And the remainder of it was about 50 pages of song lyrics for use in church gatherings.
There were dozens . . . scores . . . probably hundreds of churches that did similar things. As contemporary Christian music was working its way into big business status,¹ in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, lots of folks wanted to encourage their congregations to sing new songs.
This was before CCLI was born or well known, so there was no “clearinghouse” for securing permission to use the songs. Permissible compilations would have involved hours of research, more hours of letter-writing, lots of stamps, and lots of waiting to find out that “the copyright to many of the songs was now owned by X Conglomerate, so you’ll have to write to them now.”
Creating songbook supplements (whether lyrics-only or with music notation)² without permission was illegal, and no one should have done it.
For the uninitiated: songs are considered intellectual property, not unlike patented inventions or trademarks. Authors, composers, and copyright administrators typically retain the rights to the songs.
In my personal files, I have a bunch of paper copies of songs from the 80s and 90s. (I quit collecting in the early 00s, I think.) People would hear a new song and make a copy for me, thinking I might like it, and/or maybe our church might eventually sing it.
Some of these songs were printed in church bulletins. One set of lyrics was Dennis Jernigan’s. The words had been printed in an Abilene bulletin without the publisher’s name and maybe without the composer’s name, either. My musical setting of the “Rushing Wind” poem was arguably better than Jernigan’s. It was more meditative and was not congregational. His was obviously more popular. And mine was (unwittingly) illegal and so has never been distributed. (It’s stored as a DOS-based Songwright notation file and also as audio on a cassette tape. Bob and Stephen and other friends: I can still use DOS and Windows 3.1 and tape decks and other good stuff!)
Another set of lyrics was passed on to me in a greeting card, completely unattributed. (After all, they were Christian lyrics, so it was different. I mean, if you were using the words and/or music for good, Christian purposes, it had to be all right, right?) The person who gave the words to me was about 20 years old and wouldn’t have thought there was anything untoward.) I set the words to music myself and later discovered they were from a song written by Keith Green. Mine was a pretty good song, but more hymn-like than the original, and not nearly as likely to be sung passionately as Green’s original music to “Thank You, Oh, My Father.” Green’s widow Melody and those who handle his estate would not give permission for me to distribute my song. This firm decision may be because the words were Melody’s, or it may be simply because too many people have done illegal things, and they’re tired of the requests.
Some of my paper copies of songs were merely duplicates of hymnal songs (owned by the church or me), so it was OK, in those cases, to use copies. I used various sets in devotional/special gatherings for singing, and much of that material was in public domain. At least, I originally had legal rights to make the copies, but I should have destroyed the temporary copies after the fact. (It’s hard for me to trash things I might legally use again at the next church.)
We all — me included — ought to think about such things.
¹ Now here’s a completely tangential footnote. “Status” and “data,” contrary to most popular usage, may correctly be pronounced with long “a” sounds. “Stātus,” in other words, rhyming with “state,” not with “at.” The long-a way is still one of the correct pronunciations in dictionaries, and sometimes, it’s listed first.
² (This one is less tangential.) It’s a common belief that if you only reproduce the words without permission, it’s not a violation of copyright law. The distinction between lyrics-only and with-music is fallacious. (Randall, you once said you read my footnotes. Still? 🙂 )