Why Your Church Needs Performance Licensing

It’s often confusing for church leaders to figure out what licensing they need to be copyright compliant. One area of music licensing that is easily misunderstood is performance rights and licensing.

So let’s identify six practical reasons churches and ministries need music performance rights licenses in the context of church activities. We then detail simple, one-stop performance licenses that give churches tremendous freedom to legally play and perform music.

Performance Rights Basics

Let’s look at some brief definitions to help lay the groundwork for understanding performance licensing. First, the legal definition of a public performance is an instance of music being performed “in a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.” Most church performances fit those criteria. A performance license grants permission to have these public performances, whether it is a live performance or playing of pre-recorded music, like an MP3 or a CD, or even a streaming service such as Spotify.

Performance licenses are controlled and managed by performing rights organizations or “PROs.” The three PROs in the United States are ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. Every songwriter and publisher who wants to be paid performance royalties is registered with one of these three organizations, which represent more than 20 million songs. PROs collect performance license fees for a wide range of uses, from Internet, radio and TV broadcast to stadiums, coffee shops, bowling alleys, and restaurants.

Churches qualify for an important exemption in the U.S. Copyright Law (section 110[3]), but it is vital that church leaders understand which performances qualify for the exemption and which do not. According to the exemption, the following performances are not infringements of copyright:

“…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”.

Now that we have laid the groundwork, let’s investigate some common questions points for clarification about performance rights, and why churches need music performance licenses.

Reason #1  – Churches are NOT exempt from performance licensing

Another common misunderstanding of the copyright exemption is when churches believe that the exemption applies to all of their use of copyrighted music, regardless of the context. This is not the case. The religious service exemption applies only to actual religious services. All other performances require a performance license, as stated below:

“…in the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly.”

Outside of religious services, churches have the same copyright responsibilities as any organization or business, like a restaurant, coffee shop or stadium.

Reason #2  – The religious service exemption does NOT allow you to broadcast your church’s performances.

Many church leaders assume that the religious service exemption allows them to webcast or stream their performances of music, such as the worship team during a service. This is not true. While the religious service exemption allows churches to play and perform copyrighted music without paying royalties, this exemption does not extend to re-transmission of the service.

Reason #3  – Your CCLI license does NOT provide performance licenses.

There is a lot of confusion over what the CCLI license covers and what it does not cover. Many think that the CCLI license gives them blanket coverage for all music uses. This is not accurate. The CCLI license covers some very specific music uses, including:

  • Printing of songs, hymns, or lyrics in bulletins for congregational singing
  • Creation of custom songbooks for congregational singing
  • Creation of visual format for projecting lyrics for congregational singing
  • Limited creation of custom arrangements for congregational singing
  • Limited recording of worship services onto CDs and DVDs

Reason #4 – Churches play and perform music outside of their services.

When church leaders realize that the religious service exemption does not apply to music performed outside of services, often the immediate response is, “We don’t play any music outside of services.”

This is very rarely the case. After some quick reflection, most churches recognize that they are playing lots of music outside of their worship services, including:

  • Coffee shops
  • Bookstores
  • Concerts
  • On-hold music
  • Music before & after service
  • Retreats
  • Picnics & barbecues
  • Dances
  • Dance/exercise classes
  • Karaoke
  • Conferences & seminars
  • Vacation Bible School
  • Camps
  • Movie nights
  • Youth group gatherings
  • Guest speakers 

Each church should review its music uses to determine if it needs a performance license. Most will find that they do.

Reason #5 – Performance licenses are simple, easy and inexpensive to obtain.

Many church leaders are surprised to find out how simple and affordable it is to obtain performance licenses. CCS partners with ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC to offer two ONE-STOP licenses that cover more than 20 million songs from all of the song catalogs of ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. They offer comprehensive coverage and freedom to play or perform music both ONSITE with the PERFORMmusic Facilities License and ONLINE on your websites with WORSHIPcast Streaming License.

Reason #6 – Performance licenses give churches freedom to play and perform music anywhere.

The beauty of maintaining annual performance licenses, like PERFORMmusic Facilities License and WORSHIPcast Streaming License, is that churches have tremendous freedom to play and perform 20 million songs anywhere in their facilities and satellite campuses, as well as on their websites. The worry and anxiety is gone because church leaders know that they are covered with comprehensive coverage. You have freedom to let your creativity flow and you can rest easy knowing that the songwriters and copyright owners are being properly compensated.

Susan Fontaine Godwin is CCS’s founder/CVO, an educator and long-time member of the Christian arts community with 30 years of experience in the Christian media industry, church copyright administration and copyright management. Susan is an author and speaker and frequently writes for several Christian magazines and online publications. She serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Mobile.

About Christian Copyright Solutions: CCS’s quest is to help churches and Christian ministries “do music right.”  CCS is an expert on church music copyrights and our primary focus is providing licensing and clear educational resources to churches, as well as representation, administration, and advocacy for copyright owners. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The information contained herein is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel.