MythSolvers: Debunking 3 Common Copyright Myths

Myths are rampant when it comes to churches using copyrighted material. What exactly is a myth? One definition is “a widely held but false belief or idea.” Webster defines it as “an idea or story that is believed by many people but that is not true.” And there are a lot of different ideas about what churches can and cannot do with copyrights without getting permission.

We have put together a list of three common beliefs or myths we encounter, along with explanations, to better inform the Christian community of its requirements and responsibilities when using copyrighted works.

Myth: If I only use 10 seconds of a song or of a video clip, we don’t need to ask permission.

False. In most cases, the length of a recording or any copyrighted material does not alter the requirement to obtain permission from the copyright owner. In some cases, it may impact the cost or rate of the license, but it does not exempt you from first asking and receiving copyright clearance from the owner before using it. Some may argue that the Copyright Law Fair Use doctrine allows for using a small portion of a copyrighted work without permission, but this doctrine is quite complicated in its application and we recommend that you either obtain legal advice from an attorney about your particular situation or read Chapter 3 in the CCS eBook, “Solve the Puzzle of Copyrights,” in which Fair Use is addressed by Brock Shinen, Esq., before you assume fair use applies to your use. There are some pretty interesting court rulings that have found in favor of the copyright owner for use of as little as 1% of copied material, as well as 29 seconds of a 40-minute copyrighted musical work.

Myth: The U.S. Copyright Law’s Religious Service exemption allows me to broadcast or stream online my church’s performances of songs.

False. While the Religious Service Exemption allows churches to play and perform copyrighted music in a religious service without paying royalties, this exemption does not extend to re-transmission of the service. This may have been a grey area until 2006, when a publisher named Simpleville took a radio station to court for rebroadcasting several churches’ services, including the music portion. The defendant’s argument against liability was that he could broadcast the songs because the songs had been performed during church services. The court rejected the argument, stating that the exemption applies only to performances that occur at the place of worship; it does not extend to broadcasts of those performances. The Congressional history shows that the exemption does “not extend to religious broadcasts or other transmissions to the public at large, even when the transmissions were sent from a place of worship.” If a church is going to have its services on TV or radio, those stations will need to have a performance license. If a church is going to webcast its services, it will need a performance license each song owner or ASCAP, BMI and SESAC if it is performing copyrighted music. CCS’s WORSHIPcast License provides a one-stop streaming license that makes it simply and easy to have legal coverage for streaming music.

Myth: I’m only changing a few words in the lyrics so I don’t need permission, right?

False: Changing, modifying or revising lyrics to a copyrighted song is the exclusive derivative right of the song owner and requires permission from the owner or his/her administrator. This also applies to translating songs from the original language into a second language; e.g., translating from English to Spanish.

If you are wondering whether or not a belief or idea you have about copyrights is True or a Myth, submit your question below and we’ll feature the answer in our next MythSolver’s article.

About Christian Copyright Solutions: CCS’s quest is to help churches and 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, and  Facebook. The information contained herein is for informational purposes only, and is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel.