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03 May 2016

A Lesson Learned from Kim and Kanye's Pastor

Raul Rivera

Perhaps you have seen his hit reality TV show, Rich in Faith. Maybe you know him as the pastor who officiated the wedding of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. Or, perchance this could be the first you have heard of him. Either way, Pastor Rich Wilkerson Jr., dubbed “the hipster pastor”, is no stranger to the headlines. Most recently, however, Pastor Wilkerson is making headlines for a different reason.

In early 2016, a lawsuit was filed against Pastor Wilkerson and his church, Vous Church, for copyright infringement. The lawsuit was filed by eight street artists who donated their talent to paint murals at Jose de Diego middle school, the same middle school where Pastor Wilkerson’s church, Vous Church, hold their weekly services.

In short, Pastor Rich Wilkerson Jr. and Vous Church were being sued for using the street artists’ artwork at the school in some advertisements for the church, without authorization from the artists. This, in essence, is copyright infringement.

In an interview with the Miami Herald, Pastor Wilkerson told the newspaper, “We would never want to compromise anyone’s work and 100 percent want to settle everything.” In June of 2016, it was reported that the lawsuit had been settled bewteen the two parties in a confidential agreement.

From this I believe it is safe to assume that there was no malicious intent when Vous Church used the artwork in their advertisements. Rather, I believe the copyright infringement was due to a  simple and common misunderstanding of intellectual property rights. Because of that misunderstanding there is a valuable lesson for every pastor to learn from this unfortunate, yet very preventable, situation.

In this post we will take some time to examine how this case relates to you and your church, but first let us take a quick glance at copyright law in regards to this post.

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A brief look at copyright law

While it may be thought that the intention of copyright law is to make authors and publishers wealthy at the expense of the general public, this is far from the truth. In essence, copyright laws exist “to promote the progress of science and useful arts.”

Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution states that,

“The Congress shall have the power . . . To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;”

This section of the U.S Constitution helps to define the function of copyright as the securing of an exclusive right of an author in his or her writings for a limited time. Congress later enacted the Copyright Act of 1976, which remains the current law on the matter today.

The Copyright Act of 1976 provides protection for original works of authorship that are, “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” The Act further states in section 102(a) that,

“Works of authorship include the following categories:

  1. Literary works
  2. Musical works, including any accompanying words
  3. Dramatic works, including accompanying music
  4. Pantomimes and choreographic works
  5. Pictorial, graphic and sculptural works
  6. Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  7. Sound recordings
  8. Architectural works”

Although the Copyright Act of 1976 provides the copyright owner exclusive rights to the works that he or she produces, these rights are neither absolute nor unconditional. And this is where the misunderstanding regarding copyright may have occurred for Pastor Wilkerson and Vous Church. Let me explain.

Common misunderstandings of copyright law

In a statement to Christianity Today, Andrew Gerber of Krusnirsky Gerber, the law firm representing the eight artists in the lawsuit, said: “One big issue is the mistaken belief that works that are publicly visible or publicly displayed are somehow in the public domain. This is simply incorrect.” Gerber also stated that “just because something is visible to the public or posted publicly online does not mean that it is in the public domain or that the creator of that work has waived any intellectual property rights.”

Churches often think that the religious services exemption gives them the ability to perform or use a copyrighted work without having to worry about copyright responsibilities. This, however, is not the case.

According to Section 110(3) of the Copyright Act of 1976, the religious services exemption only applies to “musical works of a religious nature.” Furthermore, in order to be covered under the religious services exemption, a “performance” or “display” must be done “in the course of services.”

So, in short, the religious services exemption allows churches to be exempt from copyright infringement when performing worship songs during its worship service and at its place of worship. However, the recording, broadcasting, or transmission of a performance at a worship service is not exempt under the religious services exemption.

The religious services exemption only applies to “musical works of a religious nature.”

“So, how do I get permission?”

I would venture to say that for most of you reading this post, the likelihood that you or your church would impose upon the copyright privileges of street artists are slim to none. However, it is important to be mindful of what you use when you create advertisements (videos, flyers, brochures, etc.) for your church.

Rather, the biggest concern of copyright infringement for churches has to do with the use and performance of worship songs. Now, yes, the religious services exemption does cover churches when it comes to worship songs performed during a worship service. However, there is such a fine line with the religious services exemption that it really is best to get permission.

But how does one go about obtaining permission? Well, I am glad you asked.

In instances like the one with Pastor Wilkerson, you will need to ask for permission from the copyright owner before proceeding. But when it comes to the performance of worship songs, it would be unreasonable to expect someone to contact each and every singer/songwriter to get their permission to perform and reproduce their copyrighted work. This is where obtaining a “blanket license” from Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI®) comes in handy.

(Recommended reading: "What Your Church Needs to Know About Copyright Infringement")

CCLI® offers a variety of services to meet each church’s needs. One such service offered is called the Church Copyright License Coverage™ in which churches are authorized to make copies of copyrighted music covered by CCLI®, which includes over 300,000 worship songs.

Although CCLI® is not a free licensing service, its benefits far outweigh the cost.

A weight lifted

As a former pastor myself, I understand what many of you are feeling right now. Wondering to yourself, “How much more is there for me to know?” Perhaps you have even thought, “If I knew all of this would be involved in being a pastor, I might have just steered clear of the ministry all together.”  But I want to encourage you to keep fighting the good fight.

At StartCHURCH, we understand that there is a seemingly never-ending stream of rules and regulations that are necessary to follow as a church or ministry in today’s world. And because of that, our goal is to help educate you and your leaders as much as possible. This is one reason why we created StartCHURCH University.

Through this program, we cover a wide and vast range of church compliance topics (copyright laws included) to help you confidently navigate your church in today’s legislative environment.

We would love for you to sign up and join us on this journey! To find out more information about this program, you can click here or you can register today for one of our Ultimate Church Structure Conferences near you.

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Please feel free to comment. We always appreciate good dialogue. However, we do moderate each comment to ensure that it is on topic and not derogatory to other participants. We ask that you keep your comments brief and pertinent to the topic so that others may benefit.

Raul Rivera

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About the Author

Church Planter. Speaker. Author. CEO. Raul Rivera has had ample experience in the church planting world. His current venture, StartCHURCH, has helped 1000's of churches to start right. Raul has compiled an array of manuals and software tools that help churches stay compliant with the IRS. He also hosts over 35 national conferences per year, training pastors on how to launch their churches. Raul is married to his wife Genel, and they and their five children live in Atlanta, GA.