Legal issues with Gregorian chant

This page tries to explain some legal issues that are important for gregorio users.

Warning: this page does not contain the texts of the relevant laws. It is not legal advice, and there is no warranty for the information contained herein.

The difficulty with intellectual property legislation is that regulations can be very different from one country to another. For example, there are differences in the duration of copyright protection until a work goes into the public domain, and differences regarding the possibility for an author to renounce his rights. For this reason, in the gabc headers, the copyright of the original score must indicate the place and date: for example, (c) Solesmes, 1934. This will tell us that the score is in the public domain in countries in which author rights for collective pieces lapse after 75 years, but not in other countries.


European Union

Intellectual property rights are similar in each country of the European Union, at least for the essential points. Please check the intellectual property laws of your country for details.

To summarize, the rights of an author for his work are owned by him and his heirs until 70 years after his death. For the work of a community, the author rights last until 70 years after the first publication. Most old liturgical books fall in the second category. Once there are no more rights on a piece, it enters the public domain. This is the case for example of the Solesmes scores published in books dated before 1945.

A piece whose author rights are still owned cannot be distributed or modified without the author's permission. Thus, it is forbidden to reproduce a piece with author rights either by photocopying it or reproducing it with Gregorio. The only exception is the private usage (I don't think a Mass can be considered private).

However Solesmes tolerates that people reproduce their scores to make Mass booklets containing the scores on which they still own rights. But it must be for local use and not spread all over the world.

A piece under public domain can be reproduced and distributed by everyone without notification nor authorization of the author, but the modification can be more complex. In some countries (at least in France), the author of a modification of a piece becomes the author of this modified piece, and owns rights on it. This was the case for example when the abbey of Solesmes took ancient melodies (in the public domain) and adapted them. The author of a transcription in gabc also owns rights on the gabc file itself.

United States

In the United States, copyright protection is longer since the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. Copyright law is a bit complex in the USA, and it can be summed up this way:

(Information source: Columbia University Copyright Advisory Office)

Which copyright for gabc files?

The philosophy of the Gregorio project is to spread gregorian chant and ancient melodies as widely as possible. It is consequently something crucial for us that modifications of the scores are free and usable by everyone.

To do so, the most simple thing is to put modifications of scores in the public domain. To do so, the field gabc-copyright must be something like (C) Elie Roux, 2009, Public Domain. The date here has a crucial importance.

Other free licenses exist, like the GPL, the BSD license or the Creative Commons licenses, but all these licenses restrict the use of the pieces, which is justified for free software or modern pieces of music. However, for gregorian chant it seems undecent to restrict the use of scores describing melodies composed sometimes 1000 years ago. The public domain seems thus definitely the best solution for gabc files and modifications of the scores, and the Gregorio project recommends it.

Putting a piece in the public domain is possible in the anglo-saxon world and is (thus) very common in the free software world. But in some countries (like France), it's not possible to renounce one's right and put a piece in the public domain. For this reason the Creative Commons project invented the CC0, that allows a piece not to have any restriction on its diffusion or modification, but also allows the author to keep his rights.

A lot of French pieces are in the public domain in an illegal way, because it's a common practice in (for example) the free software world, which is really international. Putting a file in the public domain is thus not exceptional in France or other similar countries. But if you want to abide by the law, it would be possible to have a gabc-copyright field like CC0-1.0 by Elie Roux, 2009 <>;.