It’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas everywhere I go. The library where I work had its holiday party earlier this week, where I joined librarian colleagues singing Christmas, Hanukkah, and winter-themed songs in a pick-up chorus. Radio stations and shopping centers play a familiar rotation of popular seasonal songs whose biggest hits are from a surprisingly narrow date range centered in the 1950s. And more traditional familiar Christmas carols, hymns, and songs are being sung and played in concert halls and churches well into January.
The more “classic” Christmas music often feels timeless to those of us singing and hearing it. But while their roots often go back far, the form in which we know them is often much newer that we might think. Notice how the list in the previous link, for instance, includes “Carol of the Bells”, dated 1936. That’s when it was first published as a Christmas song, one that’s still under copyright. Its roots are older, and darker, as is made clear in a recent Slate article well worth reading. As noted there, the melody is based on a Ukrainian folk tune (date unknown), its full musical setting composed by Mykola Leontovych (assassinated by a Soviet agent in 1921), and Christmas-themed lyrics written by the Ukrainian-descended American musician Peter Wilhousky (who lived until 1978).
While “Carol of the Bells” still has a number of years left to go on its copyright, another classic Christmas carol will most likely be joining the public domain in the US in just under two weeks. Like Carol of the Bells, “Ding Dong Merrily on High” is based on a folk tune, in this case a secular dance tune first published in France in the 16th century under the title “Branle de l’Official”. In 1924, George Ratcliffe Woodward, an English cleric already known for publishing collections of old songs, wrote lyrics for the tune recalling earlier ages, and included them in the Cambridge Carol-Book, published that year by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Charles Wood, who’d collaborated with Woodward on the earlier Cowley Carol Book, wrote a harmonization to go with it. While you won’t hear it at every Christmas service, it remains widely sung this time of year. That’s in large part because it’s so much fun to sing, with its dance-like rhythms, its long bell-like vocal runs on “Gloria” (something also heard in “Angels We Have Heard on High“), and its praise of various forms of music (musicians liking to hear good things about themselves as much as anyone else).
I don’t actually know for sure that “Ding Dong Merrily on High” is still under copyright here. I have not found a 1951 or 1952 copyright renewal for the song or the book it was published in, but I’m assuming that, if nothing else, GATT restoration retroactively secured and automatically renewed a 1924 US copyright for the song as published in the Cambridge Carol-Book. (Folks with more knowledge or legal expertise are free to correct me on that.) Later published arrangements of the song may continue to have active copyrights, but only for material original to those arrangements. 1924’s remaining copyrights, on the other hand, all end in the US on January 1. (And since Woodward and Wood both died over 70 years ago, the song’s already public domain in most other countries.)
The arrival of 2020, then, should at least clear up any ambiguity about the public domain status of the basic carol. I appreciate that, in part because this song, like many other Christmas carols, lives in a sort of liminal space between the private property regimes set up for copyright holders and the older, more informal understandings of folk culture. Both kinds of spaces have good reason to exist. On the one hand, it’s good to have more than a few people who can earn a living through music, and one important way many musicians do so is by controlling rights to their compositions. On the other hand, the folk process, which originally gave rise to the tunes for both “Ding Dong Merrily on High” and “Carol of the Bells”, is also a very good way of creating and passing on shared cultural works.
Conflict can rage when two different sets of cultural expectations around creative works try to occupy the same space. That’s one reason we’ve seen decades of conflict in academia over open access, where scholarly work is largely published by companies that depend on its control and sale to earn money, while it’s largely written by scholars who earn their money in other ways, and tend to prefer free, widespread availability of their work. Sometimes informal arrangements work best to keep the peace. Publishers, for instance, have grown more used to free preprint servers, and memes and fan fiction communities have become more widely accepted (and even winning awards) as long as they stay well away from unauthorized commercial exploitation (where both big and small creators tend to draw the line).
Sometimes, though, it’s best to have a more formal understanding that works are free for anyone to freely use as we like. That’s what we’ll have when 1924’s copyrights end, and the works they cover, such as “Ding Dong Merrily on High” are clearly seen to be in the public domain. And then, those of us who are so inclined can freely sing “hosanna in excelsis!“