Avoid Copyright Infringement

How to Properly Use Music and Images During Worship Service

Churches today use a variety of intellectual property during worship services, such as music, photographs, quotes, and video clips.  These materials can be important to a worship service by increasing engagement, illustrating a point, or adding extra meaning to the service.  However, most materials are protected by copyright laws.

Using intellectual property without the permission of the copyright owner or other legal authority is copyright infringement and can result in significant monetary damages.  Churches need to know the legal issues that apply to using intellectual property so they can take steps to get permission when needed and avoid copyright infringement.   

Interestingly, the U.S. Copyright Act expressly grants churches permission to use some materials “in the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly.” The Copyright Act does not define “in the course of services,” but it is safe to conclude that it means any regular gathering of the church congregation for religious purposes.  The legislative history explains that it does not cover use for social, educational, fundraising, or entertainment purposes.  Thus, any use at an event like a church picnic, concert, or conference requires permission.

Under this provision, churches may perform musical works during a worship service without needing the permission of the copyright owner.  Performing a musical work means a live performance of the work by the congregation, choir, or band.  It does not allow a recorded version of the work to be played; playing a recorded work requires permission of the copyright owner.  It is important to note that this provision does not allow the lyrics or music of a work to be reproduced or projected.  These uses require a license. The above Copyright Act exceptions do not cover uses outside of a live, religious church service.  This means that licenses will be needed to stream the church service or distribute recordings of the service.

Other uses allowed by the Copyright Act include displaying photographs and reading quotations of nondramatic literary works during worship services.  Any uses beyond those expressly authorized by the Copyright Act usually require permission of the copyright owner.

Interestingly, motion pictures are not covered by this provision of the Copyright Act.  This means that any use of a video or video clip requires the permission of the copyright owner.  This includes videos from YouTube or any other online service because playing them in a public setting like a church service is a public performance that exceeds the scope of the license granted by the party posting the video.  A caveat is that the party who posted the video to YouTube may not have authority to post it or grant others the right to use it.  In that case, the church would need to find the genuine copyright owner to receive permission.

However, it is possible to avoid copyright infringement by purchasing one of the various blanket licenses offered by Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI).  In the case of something not covered by a CCLI license, the church will need to contact the copyright owner directly to obtain permission.  CCLI also offers a license that allows the music performed live during the service to be streamed or distributed through digital media.  Permission would be needed to stream or distribute the other components of the service protected by copyright law.

As your church puts together its next worship service, take caution to avoid copyright infringement.

This article is provided for general information and should not be relied upon as legal advice for a specific situation.  If you are in need of specific advice or legal representation, please do not hesitate to contact us.

©2018 Bea & VandenBerk