House of Worship and the Religious Service Exemption

Many pastors and worship leaders believe that the US Copyright Law does not apply to church ministries because they are a non-profit organization. While this may seem just “wishful thinking,” there is, in fact, an exemption in the law that gives churches (and all religious organizations) a free pass in very specific situations. It is called the Religious Service Exemption (RSE) and found in Section 110(3) of the Copyright Law.

The exemption is vital for churches, but it also can be very confusing for church leaders to understand and identify what it covers and what it does not include. There is a lot of misinformation or myths when it comes to the RSE, so let’s break it down in simple terms and address common questions.

First, here’s what the exemption 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 assemblyshall not constitute infringement of copyright.

Let’s break it down into three important elements (notice the color coding for each element):

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

In other words, a church does 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:

The language of the exemption specifically states Location and Setting

    • AT A PLACE OF WORSHIP
    • IN THE COURSE OF SERVICES.

As long as services are being conducted at a religious service gathering, the exemption would apply even if they are held in “non-religious” venues such as an auditorium, stadium or theater. The exemption excludes and does NOT apply to performance activities at a place of worship that are for social, educational, fund raising or entertainment purposes.

CCS’s customer service and sales reps often get questions about exactly what qualifies as a “religious service.”

Here’s the specific language in the Exemption and what Richard Hammer, JD, LLM and CPA says in this book “Copyright Law for Churches”

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

To be exempted, a performance or display must be in “the course of services.” This excludes activities at place of worship that are for social, educational, fund raising, or entertainment purposes.

…since the performance or display must occur “at a place of worship or other religious assembly,” the exemption does not apply to religious broadcast or other transmission to the public.

CCS’s PERFORMmusic License is the only blanket licenses that covers all 20 million songs from ASCAP, BMI and SESAC (the U.S. Performance Rights Organizations), which allows churches to play and perform music outside their religious services.

Download our FREE Fact Sheet for more details on the Religious Service Exemption and Fair Use doctrine.

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 TwitterFacebook and Pinterest. The information contained herein is for informational purposes only, and is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel.