Solving 7 Common Copyright Myths

What exactly is a myth? Webster defines it as “an idea or story that is believed by many people but that is not true.” When it comes to copyrights, there are a lot of different ideas about what churches can and can’t do without getting permission. We’ll discover the truth about many common copyright myths in this article.

Remember that just because you think a Myth is TRUE, it doesn’t protect you from liability or risk of copyright infringement.

Knowing how to identify copyright myths and figure out what’s true and what’s false may require some help. Some myths are based on a fairly complex aspect or section of the U.S. Copyright Law, such as the application of the Fair Use doctrine. And it’s often wise to seek legal counsel (from a Copyright or IP attorney) who can analyze and provide guidance for specific situations. In other cases, you may need to learn more of the basic building blocks of Copyright Law and how it impacts your church’s activities. I recommend you download our FREE COPYRIGHTS 101 Fact Sheet for you and your staff. The Copyrights 101 Fact Sheet is one of the many FREE educational documents provided in CCS’s Learning Center

Quite often a myth is based on some thread of truth, that may apply to a very specific situation or limitation in the Copyright Law, but is often misinterpreted and then generalized in a broader context than the original intent.

Myth 1: If we’re not selling the CDs or DVDs (or MP3 or digital video) we make, we don’t have to get a license for recording songs. If we’re not making money on what we’re doing, how could it be wrong?

FALSE. Whether you are selling or making a commercial profit does not affect your legal obligation to obtain permission from the copyright owner. The right to reproduce the original song copyright, in this case in the form of making copies of CDs and DVDs, is the exclusive right of the copyright owner and requires permission. This also applies to making photocopies or other printed materials that include copyrighted content. The copyright owner may consider granting gratis permission in some cases, but most usually issue a license for the right to reproduce the song and charge some type of royalty fee (the current rate for CDs and MP3s is $.091 per song per unit 5:00 minutes or under). A statutory compulsory license can also be obtained through the U.S. Copyright Office for the right to mechanically record in audio format a song that has been recorded at least once prior to your reproduction of it. Royalty rates vary for the right to reproduce or synchronize a song to a video or DVD and may be anywhere between $.15-.25 per song per unit.

Myth 2: Because we are a church or non-profit religious organizations, the U.S. Copyright Laws don’t apply to us.

FALSE. With the exception of the Religious Service Exemption, the legal requirements for use of copyrights by non-profit religious organizations are pretty much the same as any business or organization. There are some other possible exemptions or limitations, such as the non-profit concert exemption and aspects of Fair Use, but they apply to any type of organization and are not specific to just churches or non-profit religious organizations.

Myth 3: One church blanket license is all we need for everything we do.

FALSE. In most cases, churches need several blanket licenses to create the easiest, simplest and most comprehensive coverage for broad use of music and videos. Efforts to obtain individual song licenses require endless hours of research, correspondence, and processing payments, often resulting in delays and frustration. On the other hand, blanket licenses save your church or ministry huge amounts of time, resources, and money. Once you have your blanket licenses in place, church leaders are free to focus on enhancing the congregation’s programs and worship experience – instead of worrying about copyrights. The Blanket License Fact Sheet provides detailed information on the most common church blanket licenses.

Myth 4: The Religious Service Exemption allows us to stream our music from our services online without getting licenses.

FALSE. While the U.S. Copyright Law Religious Service Exemption allows churches and non-profit religious organizations to play and perform copyrighted music in a religious service without paying royalties, this exemption does not extend to a re-transmission of the service. This may have been a gray 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; and that 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 at least need an online performance license to cover the rights needed for the use of copyrighted music during the webcast.

Myth 5: Churches are allowed to play or perform secular songs in their service.

TRUE. Actually, the Religious Service does not distinguish between religious and secular music. The U.S. Religious Service Exemption in the Copyright Law Section (110[3]) allows you to freely perform copyrighted music in your worship service.

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 assembly shall not constitute infringement of copyright.”

Let’s break it down into three important elements:

  1. Types of copyrights: Only musical works, dramatico-musical works (of a religious nature), and non-dramatic literary works (like poems, prose, short stories, books, periodicals) are exempt. These are only two of the eight types of works that can be copyrighted.
  2. Types of rights: Only “public performance” and “public display of the works are covered. These are only two of the six rights of the copyright owner.
  3. Location and setting: During the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly.

Myth 6: Our church doesn’t need performance rights licenses from ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC.

False. Church leaders often overlook the variety of ways that music is played and performed throughout their facilities, and even satellite campuses. Apart from the Religious Service Exemption, the Copyright Law views churches and ministries as any other organization when it comes to licensing for performance rights.

Let’s look at some basic definitions to help lay the groundwork for understanding performance licensing. The legal definition of a 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.

Performance licenses are controlled and managed by performing rights organizations or “PROs.” The three PROs in the United States are ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. For the most part, 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 and restaurants.

Churches play and perform music in a wide variety of activities and events throughout their facilities, including:

  • Concerts
  • Social events like harvest events, dinners, and fundraisers
  • Music on hold
  • Dance and aerobic classes
  • Before and after worship services
  • In coffee shops and bookstores
  • Special holiday productions
  • Youth events
  • Movie nights
  • Seminars

Myth 7: It’s too difficult and costly to get copyright licenses for everything we do.

FALSE. Many church leaders believe that performance licenses are difficult and expensive to maintain, but this is not true. CCS has partnered with the PROs to offer two licenses that cover more than 19 million songs from ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC to make license simple and affordable. The PERFORMmusic license (starting at $229) provides churches and ministries with a license for the performance of live and pre-recorded music in their facilities, including satellite campuses. The WORSHIPcast license allows churches and ministries to webcast their performances of the same 20 million songs and starts as low as $225.

CCS’s Founder and CVO, Susan Fontaine Godwin is 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, Facebookand YouTube. The information contained herein is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel.

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