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Joy To the World – Past, Present and Future

purple background with rainbow hands birds flying free Joy To The World
Photo credit Adobe Stock / dalinas

This week in our current Songpreneurs Leadership Community course for quarter 4, “Tis the Season,” we looked at the classic holiday song “Joy To the World.”

Most people are familiar with this standard, and according to Wikipedia, it’s the most published hymn in North America.

In class we tied the treads of how this masterpiece came to be, both in its original form, and in its current hit status as part of the Mariah Carey “Merry Christmas” album that sits at the top of Billboard’s Holiday charts every year.

In the beginning – Joy To the World

The Psalms in Bible image Joy To the World
Photo credit Adobe Stock / Marinela

Scholars argue about the origins of the hymn most of us know today.

The general agreement is that the lyrics were written by a minister and hymnwriter named Isaac Watts in 1719.

It was based on Psalm 98 in the Bible, which in the King James version reads like this:

O sing unto the Lord a new song; for he hath done marvelous things: his right hand, and his holy arm, hath gotten him the victory.

2 The Lord hath made known his salvation; his righteousness hath he openly shewed in the sight of the heathen.

3 He hath remembered his mercy and his truth toward the house of Israel: all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

4 Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.

5 Sing unto the Lord with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm.

6 With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the Lord, the King.

7 Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world; and they that dwell therein.

8 Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together

9 Before the Lord; for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity.

The lyrics written by Mr. Watts are:

Joy to the world! the Lord is come;

Let Earth receive her King;

Let every heart prepare him room,

And heaven and nature sing,

And heaven and nature sing,

And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the world! the Saviour reigns;

Let men their songs employ;

While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains

Repeat the sounding joy,

Repeat the sounding joy,

Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,

Nor thorns infest the ground;

He comes to make His blessing flow

Far as the curse is found,

Far as the curse is found,

Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,

And makes the nations prove

The glories of His righteousness,

And wonders of His love,

And wonders of His love,

And wonders, wonders, of His love.

Most of the time, that third verse talking about the curse, sins and sorrows is left out. See, even songwriters of the 1700s had to work on being uptempo positive.

“Get thee rid of that depressing third verse, Wattsy,” his publisher probably said, “and we’ll have a hit on our hands.”

The reason why we can post these lyrics fully is because they were written so long ago that the copyright protection has expired and they are now in the public domain.

Being in the public domain means that anyone can use the lyrics and melody for any purpose without paying money to the original copyright owners / writers.

That’s what happens next.

In the middle – Joy To the World gets a melody

George Frederick Handel, vintage illustration
Photo credit Adobe Stock / Morphart

Near the turn of the 19th century, a version of Watt’s hymn was published by Lowell Mason in Boston, including a melody attributed to the composer George Frideric Handel (1726 – 1759).

Handel, the German-British composer was well known in his day, and lived a life of a superstar, or as Wikipedia puts it, he died “a respected and rich man, and was given a state funeral in Westminster Abbey.”

Even though Handel is credited as the composer of the music of this famous tune, he was long gone by the time “Joy To the World” came to light and began its climb to fame.

Under the life of author plus 70 years rule, the copyright on both the lyrics and the melody would have already expired by the time it was first published in 1848.

It wouldn’t be the last time this song re-emerged. Here’s what happened next.

In the 1970s– Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog

Fast forward to the 1970s, a second generation hit songwriter named Hoyt Axton (his mother was Mae Axton who wrote “Heartbreak Hotel” recorded by Elvis Presley) came along and took his own turn with the title “Joy To the World.”

The song was recorded by Three Dog Night and eventually made its way up to the number one Billboard charting spot.

All of us songwriters and music publishers owe a huge debt of gratitude to the gentle giant, Hoyt Axton who lobbied the U.S. Congress to pretty please raise the mechanical royalty on songs from 2 cents per copy sold where it started in 1909, and adjust it up for cost of living in the modern time.

His efforts were rewarded by a gradual raise up to 9.1 cents where the rate stayed frozen for years, partly thanks to modern lobbying efforts solely focused on raising our streaming rates, until just last year.

Now our current mechanical royalty rates, that is royalty paid whenever a song is put into a recorded form and sold to the public, have gone up to 12 cents per unit for physical and download copies.

That’s great news for songwriters and publishers, and also makes for a lot easier math! (half of 12 is 6 whereas half of 9.1 is 4.55 yuck.)

Mr. Axton, we thank you and salute your work, Sir!

Now, for the sake of thoroughness, even if the original Joy To the World had still been protected by copyright when Hoyt Axton wrote the same title, it wouldn’t have made a difference.

The copyright law says that you can’t copyright a title. So just because a song shares the same title with another song, it doesn’t mean it’s copying.

Songs share titles all the time, and the more common place your title is, the more likely there are many more songs already written by that same title.

Joy To the World is not the only title that has been a hit in the form of different songs.

What happened next?

Joy To the World Diva Style

Fast forward now to 1994, the release of Mariah Carey’s “Merry Christmas” album featuring a new version of “Joy To the World.”

Updating the Watts/Handel hymn to a modern, pop-dance beat featuring Carey’s vocal virtuosity also brought Hoyt Axton’s version into the mix.

Mariah sings the words written by Isaac Watts, including that wonderful line: “Let men their songs employ,” leaving out the depressing third verse, and carries on through “And wonders, wonders of His Love.”

Then, she adds “Joy to the world, All the boys and girls,” repeating the refrain written by Hoyt Axton in his “Bullfrog” version of the tune.

It’s a sing along for days drawing on those two familiar favorites!

Can she do that?

We already know that both the melody and the lyrics from the original “Joy To the World” have long since passed into the public domain, meaning that anybody can use the song for any reason without giving credit or royalty money to the original owners.

Another thing that we didn’t mention before is that when singers and producers create a new arrangement of a classic song from the public domain, they can claim themselves as the new writers and publishers on the old song.

That’s what Mariah and her collaborator did on the new version of “Joy To the World.”

But what about the lines from Hoyt Axton’s “Bullfrog” version? Axton only passed away in 1999. That isn’t life of author plus 70 years, which means the copyright is still valid on the song “Joy To the World” made famous by Three Dog Night.

Mariah’s “Joy To the World” is using lyrics and melody from her arrangement of the hymn, and also words and melody belonging to Hoyt Axton.

From a copyright perspective, Mariah’s version of “Joy To the World” is now what is called a derivative work.

That means, it’s a new copyright that builds on copyrights that already exist.

If she hadn’t put the lines from Hoyt Axton in there, she and her cowriter would have been the only writers listed on this new arrangement based on the original Watts / Handel song.

But because she used Axton’s lines, Hoyt now also becomes a cowriter on the new composition.

The percentages of ownership are up for negotiation depending on your record company clout, lawyers, and other factors, as long as you get your permissions worked out ahead of time.

If you put out a song that uses elements of a different copyrighted song you don’t own, you can end up losing all of the copyright to the original owner, if you’re not careful.

If you’re worried about that, you should seek permission to make your mash up, or just throw it out there and see what happens, if you’re less concerned. [this is not legal advice, but simply a statement of choices available to us as modern day music people trying to navigate the complexities of internet distribution this week]

Joy to the World – Employ Our Songs

The loveliest line of the original lyric in “Joy To the World” and music to our Songpreneurs ears is, “Let men their songs employ.”

Back in 2011, when our publishing house Hillbilly Culture was getting started, we decided to create a legal precedent changing the industry standard word “exploit” the copyright to “employ” the copyright in our contracts and dealings.

Our reasoning was – we don’t exploit the environment, our workers, our children – so why would we set out to “exploit” our songs?

In the music business contract terminology, any time you sign a record deal or publishing agreement, the goal is to “exploit” the copyrights. That’s literally the term used that means to use the copyright to make money.

As an industry built on language and communication, words matter.

Intentions matter.

This is why Hillbilly Culture LLC is proud to have adopted and established the precedent of using the words “employ” and “employment” of the copyright in all our dealings.

It means that we seek to respectfully steward the copyrighted works for the betterment of society, including the songwriter and publisher as part of that group who benefits.

This is what is promised in the Constitution of the United States (Article I, Section 8, Clause 8) when it protects the rights of creators, artists and scientists:

“To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

As we see from the “Joy To the World” example, beautiful works of art inspire other beautiful works.

When the inspiration is meaningfully rewarded in the economic sense, artist communities can thrive and create new, beautiful works for everyone to enjoy.

We can celebrate this together this holiday season as we study the stories and the music theory that make holiday songs special.

What’s your favorite version of “Joy To the World”? Tell us about it in the comments.


Learn more about copyright and how to employ your songs in our Getting Started workbook available only from Songpreneurs shop.

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