Login / Register

Comply with copyright laws

These days, worship services and websites are full of movie and TV clips, book excerpts and published artwork. The easier to find, download and publish others’ works, the more exposed churches and ministries are to copyright risk. Ministries may be violating copyright laws without realizing it.

As the number of possibilities to violate the law grow, so do the number of lawsuits, court cases and attorneys and law enforcement professionals to police the law. (Intellectual property and copyright law is the fastest-growing specialty in the U.S.) Civil penalties can range from $500 to $100,000 per copyright infringement. If the violation is willful and private financial gain is proven, the courts can inflict criminal fines of up to $250,000 and five years' imprisonment.

Where could your ministry be at risk? Attorneys who specialize in copyright infringement agree that the biggest problem areas for churches and ministries include:

  • Copying sheet music,
  • Projecting song lyrics on a screen,
  • Showing videos to groups within the church,
  • Recording church services for broadcast, tape ministries or downloading on their website,
  • Publishing cartoons and article reprints in weekly bulletins and newsletters.

There are some exceptions. Congress exempted religious organizations for the performance of copyrighted works in a worship setting. But that means performance only. Broadcasting and downloading the performance is not exempt. And the exemption does not cover copying music or projecting the words of songs on a screen.

Another exception allows for the legitimate use of a small portion of a copyrighted work for such purposes as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research. For example, a church can show a film clip to a Sunday School class to illustrate or clarify a point without receiving copyright permission. However, permission is needed for the class to view the entire film.

Given this complexity, copyright law is confusing. Follow a few simple rules, and you can lessen your risk of potential copyright infringements:

  1. When a copyright is in effect, request permission or buy the right to use the work. You must ask for permission to use copyrighted material for anything other than personal use. The hard part of this is planning ahead. Most publishers require that requests be submitted in writing.
  2. Don’t make copies of sheet music without written permission. Ever. Copyright laws for print are very clear: No copies are allowed, even if the music is out of print. If you need to make copies, contact each publisher individually for permission.
  3. Invest in a broad-use license for video and broadcast material. If you print or project song lyrics, record songs in church worship services or show videos in worship, get the appropriate license. Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) and Christian Video Licensing International (CVLI) offer blanket licensing for a very wide variety of Christian and secular music and video, respectively. Licenses are priced by the size of the organization and can range from around $50 up to $1,000. Should an issue arise, a license strengthens your claim of best efforts to comply and work within copyright laws.
  4. Get a license for recorded music. If you broadcast streaming music or make your services available via podcasts and download, get an ASCAP or BMI license.
  5. Use materials that are original, in the public domain or royalty-free. Start cultivating resources to build a library of public domain materials. Generally, if a copyrighted work is more than 95 years old, the copyright has expired and the work is in the public domain. There are sites where you can access royalty-free videos and worship images such as www.worshiphousemedia.com.
  6. Be sure to buy the proper number of licenses for software. The purchase of software is, in essence, a license to use the software — not to own it. Although terms vary, licenses generally allow you to make backup copy of your disks, but only for the purpose of replacing lost or destroyed originals — not sharing. In most cases, you’re licensed to load software only on one computer. However, most software companies offer volume discounts for churches and other non-profits.

To remain in the business of producing Christian works, Christian songwriters, composers and dramatists must be able to make a living at their craft. The copyright laws that protect Christian artists’ income helps keep the Christian music business afloat.

To ensure that your ministry is protected, check with your insurance agent or company to make sure your property & casualty policy has the right General Liability protection for ministries. This specifically protects you against claims based on infringing someone else’s copyrighted material.