The religious service exemption of the U.S. Copyright Law (Section 110) is probably the most important part of the law for churches, because it provides that:
“performance of a non-dramatic literary or musical work or of a dramatico-musical work of a religious nature or display of a work, in the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly” shall not constitute infringement of copyright.
In other words, you do not have to get permission from the copyright owner or pay royalties to perform music or display the lyrics of a work in a religious service. This applies to the “performance” and “display” rights, which are only two of the six rights of the copyright owner.
The exemption does not apply to the exclusive rights of the copyright owner to:
- reproduce a copyrighted work;
- distribute the work;
- make a derivative work (like a translation or arrangement) or;
- perform a digital sound recording (through digital transmission on the Internet or by satellite).
Read “Copyrights 101” for more details about copyrighted works and the owner’s bundle of exclusive rights.
The religious service exemption is a vital one. It is the only special treatment that churches and ministries receive under copyright law. As long as services are being conducted at a religious gathering, the exemption would apply even if they are held in “non-religious” venues such as an auditorium, stadium or theater. The exemption excludes performance activities at a place of worship that are for social, educational, fund raising or entertainment purposes.
The religious service exemption allows you to play or perform music, and this includes playing recordings of music.
It does not apply to the copying of religious music, since copying is not a performance or a display. The exemption also does not apply to recording music played or performed during a service, because recording or “reproducing” music is not a performance or display right.
The exemption does not cover videos or films, which are classified as a audiovisual work and one of eight works of authorship that can be copyrighted. Performance licensing is required if you want to show them in your services or anywhere in your church facilities. Blanket licensing to show videos is available from CVLI for many film producers.
The religious services exemption also does not cover recordings of services or the retransmission of services over TV, radio or the Internet. The exemption only covers the on-site service, so unfortunately, it does not apply to your webcasting efforts. Blanket licensing for streaming music performed by your church musicians and singers is available from WORSHIPcast.
Still confused? If you have any additional questions about how the Religious Service Exemption impacts your church's activities, leave a comment below.