An Overview of Copyrights for Churches (Part 1)

March 7, 2017 Rev. Bill Johnson

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This article is intended to familiarize you with the basics of copyright as it relates to churches.  Because copyright is a legal issue and the intricacies of your situation might make a significant difference in your rights and responsibilities, you should consult a lawyer who is familiar with your circumstance before following any legal guidance.

Copyright is a set of laws designed to help artists and others who produce creative works to be able to benefit from their work and to control its use.  Basically it gives the rights holder ownership over his or her work and some very specific rights.  Under US Copyright law, those rights are:

  • the right to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords
  • the right to prepare derivative works based upon thecopyrighted work
  • the right to distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending
  • the right to perform the copyrighted work publicly in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • the right to display the copyrighted work publicly in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work


The rights holder may, of course, choose to allow others to do some or all of those things, but they aren’t required to do so.  If you own the rights to something, then you have control over its use.

Who Holds the Copyright?

Most of the time the creator of a work owns the copyright automatically.  There’s no paperwork to file or government registry to notify.  As soon as a creative work is put into a fixed form (written, recorded, etc.) then copyright law applies.  There are some specialized circumstances, such as an employee who is doing creative work on behalf of his or her employer or works done for commission where rights may belong to an organization or publisher. 

Another exemption of note is that works created by most government employees as part of their duties for the United States Government are the property of the public at large and generally fall into the public domain.

How Long Does Copyright Last?

This is a tough question, because the answer keeps changing.  For works prior to 1923, copyright has expired and those works are in the public domain, meaning anyone is free to use them in any way.  They’re considered to be a part of our shared cultural heritage and fair game for anyone.

For works produced after that, the answer, unfortunately, is “it depends”.  The rule of thumb is that copyright extends to 70 years after the death of the author, or 90 years after the publication of a work with many authors.  For a detailed chart of the possible copyright statuses for a work, see:

Why Should Churches Worry about Copyright?

Two reasons:

  1. You value those who create music and creative materials for the church and you believe the worker is worth his wage.
  2. It’s the law. See Romans 13 for the extended discussion.

There’s simply no excuse for a church to ignore copyright law. 

A Special Note on Music

Anyone who’s ever helped in the songwriting process will tell you that a lot goes in to making a song.  There’s the lyrics, the music, the arrangement and, presumably, a recording, all of which are individual creative works, meaning separate copyrights.  So while the text of Veni Emmanuel dates from the 9th century, the current translation dates from the 19th century and the melody from then as well.  All are in the public domain, meaning anyone can use them freely.  That new Pentatonix arrangement of it?  Completely under copyright.  Even though it builds on public domain work, the arrangement and recording are unique creative works and need to be licensed as such. 

Can Churches Use Copyrighted Works?

Of course.  Anyone can use copyrighted materials with permission or licensing from the rights holder.  That’s generally the simplest, easiest way to use a copyrighted work.  There are also a few exemptions to copyright law (most notably Fair Use and the TEACH Act) which may apply in some situations.  We’ll unpack those in future articles, but one of the bigger exemptions is written into the copyright law for churches and worship directly.  §110(3) of the US Copyright Law (see for the full text) reads:

Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106, the following are not infringements of copyright:

(3) performance of a nondramatic literary or musical work or of a dramaticomusical work of a religious nature, or display of a work, in the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly;

Note the specific language of the law, though.  This exemption gives permission only for the performance and display of a work. Of the rights listed at the top of this article, it only covers two, meaning that while you’re free to sing copyrighted material, you’re not free to reproduce (which includes transferring the lyrics to powerpoint or songsheets), create derivative works (including your own arrangements of songs), or to distribute copies (including your worship team CD) or record your services.  Uses beyond the actual performance in worship require further licensing (including podcast, streaming, live viewing on YouTube or your website, etc).

How Do I Get Permission to Use Works beyond Performance or Display?

There are a few options for churches who want to use copyrighted works in worship.  The most common (and most obvious) is simply to purchase a hymnal that includes the work.  The hymnal takes care of the reproduction rights, allowing the performance rights to fall under the Religious Services Exemption. 

If you wish to reprint the liturgical materials or hymns from Lutheran Service Book in your service folder or on your screens, Concordia Publishing House does have an electronic version of the hymnal available and licenses that will cover your use of print or projected copying.

For churches that use more contemporary music that often isn’t found in hymnals, consider a CCLI license.  While CCLI doesn’t represent every artist/recording label, it does cover a decent majority, meaning you’re unlikely to encounter songs that aren’t covered. 

Licensing Trumps Copyright

Be aware that many services which offer copyrighted materials also come with licensing agreements which may limit the rights you would otherwise have under copyright.  As an example, take Netflix.  Showing a movie that is relevant to the subject matter in a classroom for educational purposes is generally Fair Use, and would be legal under copyright law, even if the work itself is still under copyright protection.  However, the Netflix license expressly forbids public performance, meaning that while it might be legal to show the film, we can’t use Netflix as the medium to do so.  This is an emerging area, but for now the law is squarely on the side of the limited license. Therefore, you cannot show a movie for your youth group, or as entertainment in school, after school program or preschool, such as a Disney movie, without a license. Licensing for this type of use is available through CVLI.

What Else Do I Need to Know?

There’s a fair bit more to talk about concerning copyright, but it’s beyond the scope of this introduction.  As we go forward we’ll unpack some of the exemptions in copyright law relating to Fair Use and some of the other exemptions around educational use of materials.  There’s a lot of freedom for specific uses, but we must be careful to obey the law and ensure that those who labor to create the works we use are fairly compensated for their work.

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