How the Religious Service Exemption Effects Summer Programs

With temperatures steadily rising and many schools out until fall, the official summer solstice is just around the corner. And while many church summer programs may already be scheduled or planned, you may not be aware how the Religious Service Exemption (RSE) effects those programs.

Let’s face it, it would be nice if the RSE allowed religious organizations to use all copyrights any way they want for their programs. But, the exemption does not take a vacation during the summer month, and it is very specific in what is and is NOT included in its limitations.  

First, let’s look at the specifics of the exemption. The U.S. Religious Service Exemption is in the Copyright Law Section (110[3]) and this is what it 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.

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.

The 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.

While the RSE allows churches to freely perform and play music in your worship service, it does not allow churches to use music freely as part of activities outside of service. In most cases, using copyrighted songs outside of religious services requires performance licensing.

But what is a performance? We often associate the word with a formal presentation…a band, a soloist, or choir. However, when congregations and even smaller informal groups play pre-recorded music or perform copyrighted music outside of a worship setting or religious service, they also require performance licensing, whether music is played by a professional string quartet or sung by amateur musicians at camp.

Let’s take a look at just a few of the instances your ministry may require licensing this summer.

Patriotic Holiday Programs

For holidays programs like Memorial Day and the 4th of July, which would not fall under the exemption, you may want to feature patriotic songs that are not included in common Christian worship catalog like:

  • God Bless the USA by Lee Greenwood
  • American Soldier by Toby Keith
  • This Land Is Your Land by Woody Guthrie
  • In America by Charlie Daniels
  • Arlington by Trace Adkins
  • (They’re Coming to) America by Neil Diamond

Because the PERFORMmusic Facilities License covers over 20 million secular and non-secular music your ministry can use these songs.

Youth Activities & Outreach

We get alot questions about music in VBS programs and what licensing churches need to keep it legal. Typically, most of the “packaged” VBS kits that are available simplify the planning by bringing everything together with songs, lessons, skits and decorations. But it is still your responsibility to ensure copyrights clearance is part of that package. Other youth activities that may require music licensing include:

  • Mom’s Day Out
  • Movie nights
  • BBQs & social events
  • Camps
  • Drama & music classes
  • Concerts & sing-a-longs
  • Dance & aerobics class

Missions Trips

Summer months are filled with church missions and outreach ministries. Many church and youth leaders find that making a CD or DVD provides a great way to introduce new music or capture memories of your events. Are you using copyrighted materials in these DVDs? You need to secure the appropriate licensing to legally use third party copyrights. Unless a song is in the Public Domain, you must secure a synchronization license to include it in your video, or a mechanical license for CD or MP3 recordings. In addition, if you use someone else’s sound recording, you must secure a master synchronization license. In both cases, you may contact the copyright holder directly for licensing. The RSE does not apply to making copies or recording copyrighted music, but only the right to perform or play the music.

While copyrights can be confusing, CCS’ PERFORMmusic Facilities License offers an easy one-stop solution for legal performance and playing of more than 20 million songs from ASCAP, BMI and SESAC anywhere in your facilities or satellite campuses. Those patriotic songs – covered. Late night singing around the campfire – covered.

While the Religious Service Exemption is definitely helpful, it doesn’t cover many of the ways we play or perform music today. If you have any questions please visit our Learning Center and download FREE informational sheets on a wide variety of copyright issues. We also urge you to call us at 877-394-5566 or log on to chat with one of our copyright experts.

Susan Fontaine Godwin is CCS’s founder/CVO, an educator and long-time member of the Christian arts community with 32 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.