According to the United States Copyright Office, any creative work that someone creates is automatically owned by that person: that is, the person creating the work owns the copyright on it.
A Public Domain work is any creative work (songs, novels, poems, stories, pictures, drawings, etc.) that is not copyright protected. Works created by individuals since 1978 are protected until 70 years after the author's death. Works created by businesses since 1978 last for 95 years from the publication date. Likewise, any works created before 1978 have a copyright protection until 95 years after the date of publication.
There are three ways a creative work can become public domain:
- The work was created by a government or public official for the public.
- The author/creator chooses to list the work as public domain.
- The copyright expires according to the applicable 70- or 95-year deadline.
Any work in the public domain can be used by the public for any use. This is why one might hear Amazing Grace played on television or radio, because the broadcaster does not need to pay a royalty to any author: the song is in Public Domain.
There are many gospel songs in the public domain. These songs make it a little less expensive on an artist making a recording, which is one of the main reasons many Southern Gospel artists record projects with the "old hymns" on them. (Another main reason is that these songs are standards that everyone knows, can sing to, and love to hear.)
Using public domain songs is a safe way to avoid any potentially illegal or immoral recording/distribution controversy.