Copyright Compliance Basics for Churches

Pilgrim Church, UCC is a small church.  Before the pandemic, Pilgrim had a weekly in-person worship service.  At the beginning of every worship service, Pilgrim distributed a service bulletin that occasionally included an insert with lyrics and music to a hymn that was not part of the church’s standard hymnal, The New Century Hymnal.  The church has a static website that provides the church’s location, history, beliefs, and contact information.  The website is only updated when there is a change to staff or hours.  The church also has a public Facebook page that is occasionally updated.

During the pandemic, Pilgrim began streaming worship services live on its Facebook page.  As members of the congregation shared Pilgrim’s services with friends and family, Pilgrim’s regular attendance grew in number and geographical scope, and Pilgrim now realizes that even when it becomes safe to worship in person again, it wants to continue to live stream worship services and also create a more robust website and Facebook page for members who cannot attend in person.

Pilgrim knows that it has a license from a company to  provide the bulletin inserts for its in-person worship service, but it also knows that other churches have also been wrestling with copyright issues as they hold their services on Zoom, Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms.

Pilgrim has lots of questions.

What is a copyright?

A copyright can be thought of as a bundle of rights to a creative work, like a book, song, video, painting, photograph, speech, poem, and even a sermon.  The rights include the right to reproduce, distribute, publicly perform, publicly display, and create a derivative of a creative work.  It’s valuable property that can be bought and sold, in whole or part, much like any other property.  Using a copyrighted work without permission is generally prohibited by U.S. Copyright Act, a federal law.  The permission that is necessary to use a copyrighted work is also called a license.

How do we know if a work is copyrighted?

Works are protected by copyright law when they are created.  It’s not necessary to register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office, although registering does provide some additional protections.  You should assume that a work is copyrighted, unless you can verify that it is not.  Works that are not copyrighted, or for which the copyright has expired, are in the public domain.  Public domain works do not require a license.

How can we find works that are in the public domain and don’t need a license?

Here is one website that may help.  Please do not assume that a Google image search for “public domain images” or “royalty-free images” will return images that are all in the public domain. 

Is a Creative Commons license the same as public domain?  Can we use photographs and songs that are licensed with a Creative Commons license?

It’s not the same as public domain.  You can read about Creative Commons here.  A work with a Creative Commons license must still be used under the terms of its particular license to avoid copyright infringement claims, so be sure that you understand the permission being granted under the specific Creative Commons license.  Not all works licensed under a Creative Commons license have identical permissions.

Do churches need a license to use copyrighted works, like hymns?

In general, yes!  Churches must follow the same copyright laws as everyone else— with one valuable exception.

The U.S. Copyright Act contains a “worship services exception” that allows churches to sing and/or play music (either on musical instruments or play pre-recorded music) during worship services without a license.  The exception applies only to performing music. 

Churches do need a license for all other uses of copyrighted works, like reproducing song lyrics and music for bulletin inserts, reproducing sheet music for choir rehearsals, and even projecting lyrics onto a screen for viewing by the congregation during worship.  So, the church does not need a license for the congregation to sing (“perform”) a hymn during worship, but it does need a license to photocopy (or otherwise “reproduce”) the sheet music for the song.

Because churches are non-profits, isn’t their use of copyrighted materials without a license “fair use” under the copyright laws?

Nope!  “Fair use” (a complete discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article) may apply under very specific circumstances, but in general, use by a non-profit does not equal a “fair use.”  Churches have to follow copyright laws.

What happens if our church uses copyrighted materials without a license?

The copyright owner may bring a copyright infringement lawsuit against you or take other legal action to stop your church’s use of the materials.

Our church owns several dozen copies of the hymnal.  Do we have the right to photocopy the music in the hymnal and distribute it to the congregation, or display the lyrics on a screen?

Not unless this right is specifically granted in the hymnal.  Hymnals usually include many songs with many different copyright owners.  These owners have licensed their songs to be included in the hymnal, but usually not to be reproduced in other ways without an additional license.  Hymnals include information on copyright ownership for each hymn.  In the beginning of The New Century Hymnal, for example, additional licenses are provided to churches for certain activities, like reproduction, for some hymns.  Here is additional information on The New Century Hymnal. 

The “worship services exception” means that the church does not need a performance license to sing the hymns or play the music during worship.

Does the “worship services exception” mean that we do not need a license to record and broadcast or live stream music in our worship service?

Remember, the worship services exception applies only to performing music.  Recording (audio or video), broadcasting, and live-streaming to YouTube, Facebook, or other platforms are ways of reproducing and distributing music, which are different rights than performing.  A church needs a license to record, broadcast, and/or live stream music in its worship services.

What if we post recordings of our worship services to a private YouTube channel and only give our congregation members access?

Sorry—any recording and broadcasting requires a license!

What if we just show the worship service over Zoom or another teleconferencing platform and do not record the service or post it to the internet?

If the service includes music or other copyrighted works, the church need a license that allows broadcasting/streaming those works, even if the service is not viewable by the general public, recorded, or posted to the internet.

But who is going to find out if we use copyrighted works without a license?

Well, compensation for the use of a copyrighted work is a justice issue for the owner of the work.  Additionally, any meeting can be recorded by an attendee with a cell phone and posted to the internet, where it will live indefinitely.

Our church wants to play YouTube videos during worship services.  Because a video is posted on YouTube and accessible to everyone, we don’t need a license to play it, right?

Unfortunately, that’s not correct.  YouTube’s terms of service currently allow playing YouTube videos only for personal use.  Congregational worship is not personal use.  A church must have permission from the copyright owner of the video and the copyright owner of the song, as well as the copyright owner of any graphics included in the video to show the video during in-person worship.  If the worship service is being live-streamed or recorded, the church must have permission to do that as well. 

It’s good to keep in mind that just because an individual (or choir) recorded themselves performing a song and uploaded it to YouTube does not mean that the individual (or choir) had the appropriate copyright permission to use that music in that way, so be sure to inquire about what permissions the performer has the right to grant.

What about other media clips, videos, and audio recordings that are freely available on the internet?

You must have a license from the copyright owner to use these materials.

What does “a license” look like?  What does it need to say?  What should we be asking for?  Do we have to hire a lawyer to write it?

A license is simply a grant of permission for what you want to do with the copyrighted work.  It doesn’t need to take any particular form and doesn’t need to be drafted by a lawyer.  It can be in the form of a letter or an email.  When you request permission, state exactly what your church wants to use (including links is helpful), how it wants to use it (in-person worship, streamed worship, recorded and broadcast worship), whether it will be posted to the internet and how long, and ask how to attribute the work— or how it should be cited.  Keep a record of the permission that is granted, and make sure that you abide by the terms of the permission that is ultimately granted.

Will we need to pay for the license?

Maybe.  Remember that folks who engage in creative works often do so for their livelihood.  Creators deserve to be compensated for their work.  If the fee is too expensive, the church can always decline and move on to a different work.

This licensing stuff sounds really complicated! And expensive!

Fortunately, there are several licensing companies that offer “blanket licenses” to churches for music.  These blanket licenses cover a huge catalog of songs that includes most hymns, worship, and popular music.  With the purchase of a blanket license, your church will have a license for many songs.  While the United Church of Christ does not specifically endorse and is not sponsored by music licensing companies, here are some of the popular providers of these services:

  • One License offers a reprint license and a license that allows the broadcast of pre-recorded video/audio content as well as live-streaming.  OneLicense deals with published church music.
  • CCLI offers a reproduction license, streaming license, and other licenses.  CCLI deals with published church music.
  • Christian Copyright Solutions offers performance and streaming licenses.  CCS focuses on secular, popular, and classical music used within worship services.

These licenses, which generally must be renewed annually, are affordable for most churches, and they are certainly less expensive than a copyright infringement lawsuit.

It’s important that your church read the terms of these licenses carefully and understand the limits before purchasing them.  A license that covers streaming from the church’s website may not cover streaming from Facebook or YouTube.  Churches may also need to report which songs they have used on a periodic basis, and will be required to attribute the license and the song in a particular way.  This is important to ensure that copyright owners are paid for the use of their works.  Check with your licensing company if you have questions about what you can do with your license.

Do these blanket licensing companies cover YouTube?

No.  There are no blanket licensing services for YouTube— the copyright owner for each element of a YouTube video must grant permission.

Isn’t it good enough just to “cite the source” of the work in the bulletin?

“Citing the source,” or attribution, is not the a substitute for a license.  Even with a license, you should cite the source of the work, and the license will often tell you how to do that. 

We understand that blanket licenses cover music.  Our church likes to include a poetry reading in some worship services.  Will the blanket license cover the performance of poetry as well?

No.  There are no blanket licenses that cover poetry or books.  You will need to contact the copyright owner of the poem or book for a license to perform, and to stream, reproduce, or broadcast as appropriate.

Short quotations of poems and other works used to support a point that the pastor is making in the sermon can generally be used without obtaining permission under the “fair use” exception, but reading complete poems or longer excerpts requires performance permission from the copyright owner.  Be aware that if your church service is being recorded for broadcasting or live-streamed, it may live on the internet indefinitely.  And if your church publishes the text of the pastor’s sermons on its website, including a poem or longer excerpt without a license to do so may be an additional copyright violation.

What about songs, poems, and quotations in funerals and weddings?

Funerals and weddings at churches are generally worship services, so the same copyright requirements apply to these services as to your Sunday worship services.

The Bible is not copyrighted, right?

Many translations of the Bible are protected by copyright.  You will need to check with the publisher of the particular translation in use at your church to determine whether that publisher has a policy that allows use of some or all of the Bible for particular purposes.  For example, the owner of the copyright to the New Revised Standard Version allows up to 500 verses to be quoted under particular circumstances.

We have so many new people attending our online services that we’d like to update our website to make it more useful to visitors.  What copyright issues should we be aware of?

Great question— we’ve had a number of church settings receive takedown notices and demands for license fees for posting photographs, graphics, or images that the church does not own and for which the church did not obtain a license.  Usually this happens when the church downloads a photograph or other image from a website and posts it to its own website.  Photographs and graphics, even those that appear to be freely available on the internet, are copyrighted and you must have permission to use them.  A best practice is not to post photographs or graphics that the church does not own.  Photographs taken by church employees in the course of their job duties are likely owned by the church.  The church can also seek permission to use photographs taken by members of the congregation.  Finally, there are stock photo services from which a church can purchase a license to a photograph if it needs a photograph of something specific.

You should also be aware of the same issues that are discussed above if you are providing the text of sermons, recordings of worship services, or videos of worship services on your website— be sure that you have the appropriate licenses to reproduce and broadcast the music and other copyrighted works in your recordings or text.

But there is absolutely no ownership information for some of these random images, photographs, and recordings on the internet!

We know, it’s frustrating.  But someone created and owns that image.  If you cannot identify the copyright owner, the best practice is to move on to a different work.

Our church received a letter from a company saying it was a licensing agency for a photograph that we posted on our website.  The letter claims we didn’t have a license for the photograph and is demanding money for it.  Is this a scam?

It may not be a scam.  Licensing agencies have software that automatically searches the internet for works that it licenses.  When an agency finds a photograph and does not find a corresponding license, it sends a letter with a demand for payment.  Under the U.S. Copyright Act, copyright owners who register their works can sue for copyright infringement if others use their works without licenses, and they are entitled to money— or “damages”— for unlicensed use.  Such a letter may be a first step towards a lawsuit.  If your church does not have a license for the photograph, you may be able to negotiate the amount the license agency is asking for.  It’s best to contact an attorney if you receive a letter like this and aren’t sure what to do.

Not copyright, but important!  

Online services and church websites may have privacy implications for members and other attendees. 

  • A church should not post photographs or video of members or attendees on its website without permission of the individuals included in the image.  This includes member directories (which may have copyright implications as well).  Many churches ask members to sign media releases annually for this purpose.
  • It is a best practice for a church not to post photographs of individually identifiable children on its website or Facebook page. 
  • Attendees should be reminded not to post private information on Facebook during online worship services and to be in touch with the pastor or other designated individual directly for specific prayer requests, especially those relating to health information, upcoming surgeries/hospital stays, and travel.

Here are some additional resources that include information on copyright:

Copyright Webinar for Local Churches

Legal Considerations for Worship

How NOT to add an unintended legal battle to your church’s worries

Categories: General Counsel Blog

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