It is probably fair to say they nearly every religious service plays music or sings songs that they did not write. In today’s digital world, information can be obtained from the internet such as music, lyrics, graphics, and pictures with ease. In doing so, few if any think of the possible ramifications of infringing upon the copyrights of another. What follows is a brief synopsis of the rules of law which pertain to the use of copyrighted materials during church services and may not apply to Sunday School or other activities.

Churches are not exempt from complying with copyright laws as these laws apply to non-profits as they do everyone else.

In General:
A Copyright pertains to the Federal Law which provides for the protection of one’s creation of “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.”

Copyrights arise at the time in which an original work is authored in one form or another and include but are not limited to musical/literary works, photo/graphic works, sound/video recordings, and motion pictures. The creator of an original work does not have to register their product to obtain a copyright. The above should not be confused with a Trademark which is a word, phrase, symbol, or design, or a combination of words, phrases, symbols, or designs, that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others.

When a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner, an infringement has occurred. Upon such an instance, remedies for the copyright owner can include actual damages, profits gained by the offending party, injunctive relief, statutory damages and attorney’s fees, and cost.

Licensing Rights:
The licensed use of copyrighted material allows the church to use particular copyrighted material under specific guidelines and limitations granted under that license. Similarly, a blanket license allows for the use of several copyrights under a single license. Several licensing companies provide this service at varied costs depending on the use. Your church should always take into consideration its intended use of copyrighted materials, be it lyrics to be sung during a religious service or a musical composition used in a video on the church’s website.

Many denominations obtain and provide these licenses for their congregations to use, particularly in the use of hymnals. Hymnals themselves are copyrighted material and as such, there are limitations placed upon their usage. Although hymns that are included in the hymnal that are within the public domain may be reproduced without permission, those that are still under copyright protection may not be reproduced for use in the church bulletin, (unless the church has published hymnals for the congregation and the reprinting is done in accordance with the hymnal’s copyright).

Public Domain:
In short, the public owns the particular work which is no longer protected by the intellectual property laws. Therefore, the material may be used without obtaining a license or permission. However, one should not assume that just because the material is old enough to be in the public domain that it is without first just checking. For instance, an artist may take a song that is in the public domain and create a new version or arrangement in thereby making it their own and afforded copyright protection.

When in doubt, obtain written permission from the copyright holder to ensure that your use is permissible.

Religious Worship Service Exemption:
There is one exception to the copyright laws which pertains to the use of such materials in the religious context, namely 17 U.S.C. § 110(3), the Religious Worship Service Exemption. This code carves out a limited exemption for the “performance of a nondramatic 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.”

This exemption only applies to religious activities where musical works and non-dramatic literary works are performed or displayed during services at a place of worship or other religious assemblies. Not included under the Religious Worship Service Exemption is the right to reproduce a copyrighted work, distribute the work, make a derivative work, or perform a digital sound recording. In short, your church cannot rely on the exemption to use copyrighted material on its website, audio/video recordings, distribute copies, or for insertion in the bulletin without permission, see licensing above.

Whenever copyrighted material is reproduced in any form, permission must be obtained. Do not overlook how your church may be utilizing copyrighted materials as the right to reproduction, whether making digital or hard copies, is the exclusive right of the copyright owner and requires permission. By way of example, the church musicians may use legal copies of copyrighted music but may cross a line if they make copies of that same music for distribution at practice, (with the exception that musicians are allowed to make copies of pages of music to avoid page turning). The same applies to art/graphics used in church bulletins as doing so without permission constitutes copyright infringement.

Do not rely on “Fair Use” which is a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances. This doctrine applies namely to uses which pertain to criticisms, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research; they rarely apply to church services.

It is helpful to designate a board/staff member to be responsible for copyright compliance as infringement creates liability for the church. Additionally, make sure that anyone responsible for music, bulletins, records, social media, and the like are aware of copyright compliance.

Churches should consult with licensing companies concerning the scope of use covered by various licenses and concerning particular practices and uses of copyrighted materials to avoid inadvertent copyright infringement.

Generally, the church can’t infringe if it has received permission from the owner and use the work within the scope of the permission.

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Disclaimer: Every situation is different and particular facts may vary thereby changing or altering a possible course of action or conclusion. The information contained herein is intended to be general in nature as laws vary between federal, state, counties, and municipalities and therefore may not apply to any given matter. This information is not intended to be legal advice or relied upon as a legal opinion, course of action, accounting, tax or other professional service. You should consult the proper legal or professional advisor knowledgeable in the area that pertains to your particular situation.

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