Is Your Church Following All Copyright Laws?

Does your church livestream its worship services? Play music when callers are put on hold on the telephone? Photocopy music compositions for choir use?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, then your church needs to consider if its copyright compliance is up to date and covers all copyright-protected activities of your church.

“Church leaders need to be much more aware of what types of works are copyrighted and that permission or licensing is required in order to legally use the works,” said Susan Fontaine Godwin, founder and owner of Alabama-based Christian Copyright Solutions (CCS).

Eight works of authorship can be copyrighted: music, sound recordings, literary works, audiovisual, dance, dramas and architecture. United States copyright law gives copyright owners exclusive rights to reproduction, public performance, public display, distribution, derivative (adaptation such as an arrangement or translation) or performance of digitally transmitted sound recordings.

Why it is important

A church that infringes on a copyright, either knowingly or unknowingly, can potentially face a lawsuit, which is “an expensive outcome,” according to Brad Radice, executive director of broadcast media in the marketing and communication division at Samford University in Birmingham.

Other outcomes for a non-copyright-compliant church are fines and punitive fees. If sued, a church may settle out of court but still face hefty financial fees to resolve the infringement issue. The “policing” of copyright compliance has become better with technology, Radice warned.

And ignorance of the copyright law is no defense if a church is found to be non-copyright compliant.

In addition to financial repercussions for a church that is non-copyright compliant, if a church’s electronic posting is discovered not to be compliant, the posting may be silenced or shut down. This negates the church’s efforts to expand its gospel witness, Radice explained.

Keith Hibbs, director of the office of worship leadership and church music for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM), added that copyright compliance is “a matter of integrity.”

“When you use copied material or stream/broadcast without acquired permission you are stealing artistic property from composers, lyricists, publishers and producers,” he said.

Doug Rogers, SBOM communications director, agreed. “I always remind churches that we should set the standard in this area, rather than look for shortcuts, plead ignorance or ask ‘Who’s going to know?’”

Beyond these negative outcomes, Susan Fontaine Godwin believes, “Church copyright compliance helps support and promote the creation of new music and resources for the use of the Church.

“(Even though) copyright compliance is often confusing and complex … copyrighted materials we use in worship and ministry are available to use because someone was called by God to create them, took the time and care to craft them and used their resources to share them with the world,” said Godwin, who teaches a copyright class at University of Mobile. “Making sure these creative individuals are paid for their work allows them to continue in their ministries and allows our ministries to continue to be blessed by their work.”

Ensuring copyright compliance

When it comes to copyright compliance, it’s better for churches to “be proactive, rather than reactive,” said Ed Landers, director of the media center in the marketing and communication division at Samford.

United States copyright law does have a Religious Service Exemption that allows churches and other religious organizations to perform or play music or a nondramatic literary work during a religious service at a place of worship without permission. Beyond that one exemption, however, churches must secure licensing for their use of copyrighted materials.

One of the confusing issues related to copyright compliance is the difference between a performance license, which allows a church to play or publicly perform a piece, and a reproduction or copying license, which allows a church to record a live performance or photocopy musical compositions.

One copyright license does not cover all of a church’s copyright compliance needs. To simplify a church gaining appropriate copyright coverage, several blanket licenses are available.

Godwin explained, “In the Christian community a blanket license provides pre-approved authorization for your church or ministry to use a particular group of copyrights for very specific uses or rights. In most cases a group of copyright owners and a third party have developed a licensing solution to simplify the legal use of copyrights and assure royalty payments are disbursed to the correct copyright owners.”

A blanket license frees a church from having to get copyright permission each time it wants to use a copyrighted work.
Rogers added that he has had churches ask if these licenses are a gimmick. “I’m quick to explain that they’re really a blessing. They make the task of legally using copyrighted materials much simpler. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to have to secure permission for each song individually?”

To be fully compliant, some churches may need just one blanket license, while other churches may need several, Godwin said. The costs of blanket licenses are tiered, based on congregational size, and are affordable for most churches.

Blanket licenses

“There isn’t a one-stop licensing solution,” Godwin said. However, two companies that provide blanket licenses for churches are Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) and CCS, with each providing distinctive services. These two companies provide blanket licenses that should cover the “majority” of copyright coverage needed by churches, Godwin said. There is little overlap in the copyright licenses offered by the two companies.

Generally, CCLI offers a blanket copyright license to reproduce, distribute and, to a limited extent, make audio reproductions or derivative works. CCS, on the other hand, offers blanket performance licenses. Although the Religious Service Exemption allows churches to perform within the confines of a worship service, any other performances, such as performing publicly, live-streaming worship services, posting songs to the internet, recording a worship service for shut-ins or even playing Christian copyrighted music in a church exercise class or as people who call the church are put on hold, require copyright licensing.

“The key is to consider how your church uses copyrighted music and to put together the mosaic of blanket licensing that is right for you,” Godwin advised.

Several online resources, such as copyright fact sheets, a copyright quiz and a church copyright toolkit, are available at to help churches determine their coverage.

Legal counsel

“A part of our mission is education,” Godwin explained. “Churches may need to obtain legal counsel from a copyright or entertainment attorney regarding specific situations or questions.”

In addition to CCLI and CCS, Church Video Licensing International (CVLI) allows churches to show approved films and videos for specific uses. For example, a video clip may be used to illustrate a sermon point or an entire movie may be shown at a special church movie night event. However, this license does not extend to a church retransmitting the video on the internet.

Editor’s Note — The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as legal counsel.

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