Is Our Church Breaking Copyright Law? And What To Do About It.

It’s a tough question to ask, and church leaders often find it difficult to get a clear answer. Let’s start by looking at five important basic guidelines that will help you answer the question. 

No. 1 In most cases the US Copyright Law applies to churches and other non-profit organizations, just as it does to businesses, music companies, corporations, stores, restaurants, auditoriums and other venues. Because your church operates as a non-profit (tax status 501-c3) does not mean you can use copyrighted music without obtaining permission from the owner.

No. 2 A very important exception for churches is the Religious Service Exemption (RSE), which states:

“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.

Let’s break it down into three important elements:

  • Types of copyrights: Only musical works and non-dramatic literary works (like poems, prose, short stories, books, periodicals) are exempt.
  • Types of rights: Only “public performance” and “public display of the works are covered.
  • Location and setting: During the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly. 

If your use of music or a literary work does not fit the criteria of the exemption, then you’ll need to obtain the proper licensing. Find more details about the RSE in this article.

No. 3. It’s important to understand that there are several types of copyrighted works that churches use on a regular basis that probably require licensing or permission. Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U.S. Code) to the authors of “original works of authorship,” including:

  1. Music including any accompanying words, lyrics, notes, and composition in some published format.
  2. Sound Recordings
  3. Literary Works
  4. Visual Arts
  5. Choreography / Dance / Pantomime
  6. Drama
  7. Video / Films
  8. Architecture 

Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following:

  1. Reproduce or copy
  2. Perform
  3. Distribute
  4. Display
  5. Make a derivative, and
  6. Perform recording in digital transmission

No. 4. One of the easiest and simplest ways to assure that your church is not breaking the Copyright Law is to utilize church blanket licenses that fit your church’s activities. Two of the most popular licenses are the CCLI License (for reproduction rights) and CCS’s PERFORMmusic License (performance rights). Get started today by downloading this FREE Fact Sheet that explains the beauty of Church Blanket Licenses, and what each one covers and does not cover.
No. 5. Evaluate and analyze your church’s level of copyright compliance, so you can figure out where to begin to make sure you’re not breaking the Copyright Law. You can start by taking our FREE online Copyright Compliance Report Card.  The Report Card is for entertainment purposes only, but along the way you’ll find some very useful information and practical ideas on how to become more compliant. It will take about 5-10 minutes for you to answer 12 questions. When you’re done, you’ll get a grade and a summary report on specific categories to give you an idea of where you can find licensing solutions or consider making policy changes. You may also want to obtain legal counsel from a copyright attorney.
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. The information contained herein is for informational purposes only, and is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel.