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In Christian hymnbooks today it is common to find hymns that were written in the 1700s or 1800s. However, most of the time these hymns have been adapted, to modernize older language, or to adjust the meaning of a phrase for a broader audience.

According to current copyright law in the United States, printed works published before 1923 are in the public domain. Are the adapted versions of pre-1923 hymns that appear in current hymnbooks also in the public domain? What about translations?

An example is the hymn "How Firm a Foundation." Different texts can be compared here: https://hymnary.org/text/how_firm_a_foundation_ye_saints_of/compare

I am interested mainly in the United States copyright / public domain law.

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According to US law according to Cornell, copyright applies to derivative works. A derivative work is an original work based on a previous work (Definitions), so the adaptations would be copyrightable unless they were held to be unoriginal. In general, the courts don't require much creativity to consider a work original. Translations are original works.

Therefore, the adaptations are almost certainly under copyright, while the originals remain public domain.

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  • What do you mean by "held to be unoriginal" – does that mean that the publisher of the book, for example, doesn't claim copyright and only attributes the original authors? Or do you mean by a court of law? Aug 30, 2018 at 1:44
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    @SamuelBradshaw by a court of law.
    – phoog
    Aug 30, 2018 at 4:41
  • @Samuel To get copyright you need to create something original and creative. A translation usually is original and creative enough to give you copyright. A “translation” from British English to American English might not be original enough to count. Basically you didn’t do enough to deserve copyright.
    – gnasher729
    Aug 30, 2018 at 7:01
  • @gnasher729: The test of copyrightability in the US is originality, not work. Of course, if you don't put enough work into something to be original, you're not going to be able to copyright it. Aug 30, 2018 at 17:14
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Unless the adaptation is itself old enough to be out of copyright, or is so close to the original that it is not considered original enough to support a copyright (and that is a quite low bar), each such adaptation has its own copyright under US law, which would have been initially owned by the creator of the adaptation. Such adaptations are just as protected as if they were not adaptations, but independent original works.

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