According to Wikimedia Commons:


the melody to the tune Scarborough Fair (which had been popularized in the 1960s by Simon and Garfunkel) is in the public domain.

Is this claim correct; and if so, can someone today write a new set of lyrics to accompany the basis of the said melody, and publish it?

  • It's worth noting (from the "File usage on other wikis" section): that image is not used at all on the English Wikipedia, and only appears on the German Wikipedia discussion page for their Scarborough Fare article. It's also mentioned, though not linked, on the discussion page for the English Scarborough Fare article. In both cases, the discussion revolved around the image being removed. As Tetsujin says, the notes are all wrong.
    – FeRD
    May 22, 2022 at 12:17
  • @FeRD the notes are not all wrong; it's simply another variant of the song.
    – phoog
    May 22, 2022 at 14:27

2 Answers 2



Both melody and lyrics source back to the middle ages, as for instance described here. The difficulty could be to make sure you rely your derived work on a variant that is really in the public domain. E.g. if you use notes or lyrics from the Simon & Garfunkel version and derive from there, you might violate their copyright.

  • 7
    It's also possible that an arrangement is copyright, but the traditional melody and lyrics are in the public domain.
    – Stuart F
    May 21, 2022 at 16:34
  • 3
    @StuartF indeed, the countermelody sung by Art Garfunkel is protected by copyright.
    – phoog
    May 21, 2022 at 17:31
  • @StuartF I'm not sure, say, the Simon and Garfunkel lyrics are in the public domain. As for the "traditional melody"---could you expound a bit on that? Say I heard an unmistakable rendition of Scarborough Fair in some store played through "Musak"---is that particular tune public domain? I know the Scarborough Fair hearkens way back to the "The Elfin Knight"---but I'm not sure what the latter sounds like and how closely it resembles the modern Scarborough Fair. In writing the song, Paul Simon borrowed from the rendition he heard of acoustic singer Martin Carthy when he was in England.
    – DDS
    May 21, 2022 at 18:23
  • @mlchristians The lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel are very close to what I can find otherwise on the net as well, so that might be free, but that would need a close analysis. But no, a modern interpretation is usually not free. Since it's such a famous song, anybody who sung it could claim that you infringed their copyright on it. And then it's up to you to convince the judge that you didn't.
    – PMF
    May 22, 2022 at 6:33
  • 1
    I think this answer is far too simplistic to base any decision on. It ignores that the OP's melody bears no resemblance to Carthy/Simon & Garfunkel.
    – Tetsujin
    May 22, 2022 at 11:00

Note: The OP's linked tune on Wikimedia is not the Simon & Garfunkel tune. It's nowhere near, totally different melody.

For any traditional song you need to source several versions & derive a history to decide where copyright, if any, rests.

Wikipedia claims that the Simon & Garfunkel version came from Carthy, via a book by Ewan MacColl, The Singing Island (1960), which transcribed a performance by a Durham miner, Mark Anderson (1874-1953) in 1947.

As no recording exists of the Anderson version, this book would be considered the first hard reference of the version that became the Simon & Garfunkel song; and would be your source reference to compare any changes.

The Martin Carthy version bears much closer resemblance to the Simon & Garfunkel than the traditional tune in the question, so this would form a good middle-ground for comparison to the MacColl/Anderson version. This, though, would also give Carthy copyright on the intermediate changes - this gets very complicated.

That would really make Anderson the owner of any copyright of this set of derivative versions only - in the same way Alan Price has copyright to the Animals version of House of the Rising Sun, credited Trad:Arr Price - though as Anderson apparently never did anything further with it, even if contested by his heirs that copyright will expire next year [author's death + 70 years].

I would consider the song itself to be all but public domain, so long as you avoid any of the elements added by Carthy/Simon/Garfunkel.

I have found a hugely comprehensive work-through of the various versions over time [will take quite some time to study thoroughly].
"...Tell Her To Make Me A Cambric Shirt" From The "Elfin Knight" to "Scarborough Fair"
From this is would seem that the Wikimedia version is referenced in this as 'Whittingham Fair' From the Newcastle Courant, 1879, which is a century out of copyright.
This reference contains transcriptions of both the Carthy and MacColl variants.

To directly answer your question, you are quite at liberty to write completely new lyrics [or even derivative if your source pre-dates Carthy/S&G] so long as the tune you use is also copyright-free.

  • It's not totally different. The part corresponding to the words "-mary and thyme, remem-" is almost identical, and would be identical if the C were a C♯.
    – phoog
    May 22, 2022 at 13:53
  • @phoog - Three out of four notes from an entire melody does not a court case win.
    – Tetsujin
    May 22, 2022 at 16:16
  • "That would really make Anderson the owner of any copyright of this set of derivative versions only": would it? He may be the earliest known source for that variant, but he doesn't claim to be the author.
    – phoog
    May 22, 2022 at 16:26
  • So we're back to The House of the Rising Sun & copyright goes to the first to claim it - so long as they only claim that version. We could go round in circles like this all day - which is what they pay lawyers to do if anyone's ever willing to test it in court.
    – Tetsujin
    May 22, 2022 at 17:58
  • @Tetsujin: If the number of new notes were large enough for the question of "is this work sufficiently original to be copyrightable" a factual matter, what kind of instructions would a jury receive to resolve the issue?
    – supercat
    Nov 16, 2022 at 0:19

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .