What Your Church Needs to Know About Copyright Infringement


Imagine for a moment that it is Sunday morning and the church sanctuary is full of congregants eagerly anticipating the start of worship. As the service kicks off, the worship team begins with a song that was recently recorded and released by a popular Christian artist.

The congregation actively participates in the worship service. The words to the new song are projected on a large screen to help everyone engage. As usual, the service is recorded in its entirety for the convenience of those not in attendance. This scenario depicts a common Sunday worship service in many churches across the country.

However, there is an inadvertent violation of the law taking place here, and in many churches, on a weekly basis. The church is engaging in copyright infringement because it published the lyrics of copyrighted music on a big screen and recorded the copyrighted music.

Copyright infringement: a common misunderstanding

Churches have the ability to rapidly access the latest worship songs and sermons. Many of these songs are produced and published by talented leaders in the Christian community. With the increase of easy access to these new songs, the possibility of copyright infringement increases as well.

In most copyright infringement cases involving churches, the infringement by the church was inadvertent.

Since this is such a common scenario in the church world, it is imperative for churches to be familiar with the privileges and limitations of copyright law.

(Recommended reading: "Two Clauses in Your Bylaws That Can Save You and Your Ministry")

A brief look at the law

The Copyright Act of 1976 protects from copyright infringement the creative works that one produces; this happens through six “exclusive rights.” There are several limitations to these exclusive rights.

In most copyright infringement cases involving churches, the infringement by the church was inadvertent.

One limitation is beneficial to churches, and it is known as the religious services exemption. While the religious services exemption is helpful to churches, there are conditions that apply to it.

Before we delve into the religious services exemption, let us examine the exclusive rights afforded to authors and artists.

Exclusive rights of copyright protection

The United States Constitution gives Congress 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” (Article 1, section 8). In addition, section 106 of the Copyright Act of 1976 provides this same power.

In essence, the author or artist of a copyrighted work has the exclusive right to control the reproduction, adaptation, publication, performance, and display of the work that he/she produced.

Under the Copyright Act of 1976, the copyright owner has the right to determine who can use his/her work, how the work can be used, and in what capacity it can be used.

Any action that violates one of these exclusive rights of a copyright owner is an unlawful act, whether or not it was a deliberate violation.

Most churches never intend to violate the exclusive rights of a copyright owner. However, violations generally occur because churches do not realize that what they are doing is wrong.

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Next, let us examine common copyright infringement committed by churches.

Common copyright infringement by churches

Three of the most common areas of copyright infringement committed by churches are printed material, music, and multi-media.

1. Printed materials

Oftentimes, a church may use various resources or authored works for church activities and board meetings.

The issue, in many of these circumstances, occurs when unauthorized copies of the resources are made and distributed. In such situations, it is best to purchase copies of the resources for everyone, or obtain permission from the author or publisher.

(Recommended reading: "Does a Church Need to be 501(c)(3) Approved?")

2. Music

Churches most often commit copyright infringement by printing or copying the lyrics to worship songs in bulletins, PowerPoint slides, or sheet music for the praise team.

Copyright infringement can also occur when churches record, broadcast, or transmit the performance of a copyrighted worship song. Unless the church has a license to do this, the church is guilty of copyright infringement. (We will discuss how the church can obtain a blanket license later in this post.)

3. Multi-media

Whether you are hosting movie nights or using video clips of movies and television shows, multi-media is a vital part of the church today. However, without a video license that gives permission to use such tools, copyright infringement is taking place.

(Recommended reading: “A Lesson Learned from Kim and Kanye’s Pastor”)

Churches are often under the impression that their actions are covered under the religious services exemption.

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Religious services exemption

With regard to exclusive rights violations for churches, the religious services exemption is perhaps the most important provision within the Copyright Act of 1976.

According to section 110(3) of the Copyright Act of 1976, the following are not infringements of copyright for churches: “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.”

In essence, a church does not have to get permission from the copyright owner to perform or display the lyrics of a copyrighted piece of work (religious in nature) during a worship service.

It is important to know that the religious services exemption does not include the reproduction or copying of lyrics to worship songs since that would not be a performance or display as stated in section 110(3).

Churches are often under the impression that their actions are covered under the religious services exemption.

The religious services exemption allows a church to be exempt from copyright infringement when performing copyrighted worship songs during its religious gathering at a place of worship. However, the recording, broadcast, or transmission of a performance at a worship service is not exempt under the religious service exemption.

Note that this exemption does not include secular music, but rather only music of a “religious nature” such as worship music. This is the special provision that churches receive under the copyright law.

Since the religious services exemption is not an all encompassing exemption for churches, there is a possible solution that could prove to be beneficial to your church.

License to use copyrighted work

You do not have to approach each individual artist or record label to obtain a license to use copyrighted work. There are organizations that offer services to make this process much easier and provide churches the ability to purchase a blanket license to lawfully use copyrighted work. Through the use of a license, churches are authorized to make copies of copyrighted music and create song duplications.

Seek excellence in all areas of your ministry

To operate a church in today’s world, it is not only necessary to become familiar with church compliance matters, as defined by the Internal Revenue Service, but it is also important to be mindful of the parameters set by copyright law.

While it is not the intent of most churches to deliberately violate the exclusive rights of a copyright owner, the violations are generally occurring because churches do not realize that what they are doing is wrong.

I encourage you to commit yourself to excellence in all areas of your ministry. One available resource guaranteed to empower you in your journey towards excellence is the conference we conduct nationwide throughout the year.

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When you commit yourself to excellence in all areas of ministry, you will begin to see God bless you and your church in ways that you never thought possible.

If you have questions, please give us a call at 877-494-4655, and we can provide information to assist you and your ministry.

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