Three Steps to Understanding the Religious Service Exemption

Many churches believe they should be exempt from copyright licensing, and fortunately, one portion of the US Copyright Law addresses this specific question.

The religious service exemption (RSE) of the U.S. Copyright Law  (Section 110[3]) is probably the most important part of the law for churches because it provides that performance of a non-dramatic literary or musical work 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. The exemption excludes performance activities at a place of worship that are for social, educational, fund-raising or entertainment purposes.

The exemption states the following are not infringements:

“…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 CPA and attorney Richard Hammar’s book, Essential Guide to Copyright Law for Churches, he quotes from the House of Representatives on the Copyright Act 1976 Reports:

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

There are three key steps to understanding how the Religious Service Exemption applies to your church’s activities. Let’s break it down into three important elements:

  1. What are the TYPES of copyrights – there are eight types of works that can be copyrighted
  2. What are the exclusive RIGHTS that are exempt
  3. What is the specific location and SETTING

Types of Copyrights

Only musical works (music and lyrics) and non-dramatic literary works (like poems, prose, short stories, books, periodicals) are exempt. The Copyrights 101 Fact Sheet goes into much more details about the eight works of authorship that can be copyrighted.

Types of Rights

Only “public performance” and “public display” of the works are covered are included. Only two of the six rights. We cover all six exclusive rights in the Copyrights 101 Fact Sheet.

Where and What

“During the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly” is specified. The exemption EXCLUDES performance activities at a place of worship that are for social, educational, fund-raising or entertainment purposes.

So what can churches do when it comes to music performances that are NOT in a religious service? CCS partners with ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC to provide a great solution, the PERFORMmusic Licensethe only one-stop blanket performance license for churches and religious organizations.

The RSE does NOT cover music being performed or played outside a religious service for activities such as:

  • concerts
  • aerobics and dance classes
  • youth programs
  • social events
  • fund-raisers
  • coffee shops
  • conferences and seminars
  • camps and VBS
  • on-hold music

But the PERFORMmusic License does cover all of the above activities, plus much more.

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 RSE also does not cover recordings of services or the retransmission of services over TV, radio or the Internet. The exemption only covers the on-site service, so unfortunately, it does not apply to streaming music on your website. Simple blanket licensing for streaming music performed by your church musicians and singers is available with the WORSHIPcast License, covering more than 20 million songs.

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.

2 Comments

  • Joan Hall {JoAnn} says:

    I am wanting to go to several nursing homes each month and sing Gospel Music for the residents. Not for entertainment but for spiritual uplifting and I would not be doing it for profit. I would be using accompaniment track CD’s that I purchase in Christian Book Stores. I need to know if I need a license and if so what kind and approximately how much do they cost?? Please help me as I don’t know where to start and who to ask Thank You so much for your help. JoAnn

    • Deanna Rose says:

      There are a couple of ways that you could handle this situation, depending on your ministry. For further details please contact one of our Copyright Associates (251) 300-3402 to schedule your Free 20 minute phone consultation.

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