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Is Your Streamed Worship Complying with Copyright Laws?

church copyright

If you are like many churches, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused you to rely heavily on livestreaming your services. But do those services comply with church copyright requirements? In a recent webinar, worship consultant Kenny Lamm explained what churches need to know to ensure their online worship services are legal. 

“Many churches break the law on a daily basis,” said Lamm, who is the senior consultant for worship and music for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. “They make illegal copies of music or distribute illegal audio files.”

But many church leaders are clearly concerned about whether or not they are following church copyright laws. “I’m overwhelmed by the number of people that have expressed interest in this topic,” said Lamm, observing that the question of what copyright licenses are necessary can seem quite “muddy.” 

Why Do Church Copyright Laws Matter?

Some people think church copyright laws are irrelevant and say, “As long as it’s for the Lord’s work, it should be okay.” Lamm disagrees and pointed to the following passages from Scripture to support his position: Exodus 20:15, Romans 13:1-2, and Luke 20:25.

He compared using copyrighted music without permission to asking to borrow a friend’s truck and then tampering with it. Just as you would never use your friend’s vehicle for anything other than what you asked permission for, no one has the right to use someone else’s artistic work without the creator’s permission. 

Before he began, Lamm emphasized that he is not a lawyer. He has, however, been talking to experts and gathering a lot of helpful information on the topic of church copyright licenses.

There are five types of copyright licenses that are relevant to church leaders:

  1. Print License, which allows you to print lyrics, music, or a combination of the two
  2. Mechanical License, which allows you to make and distribute audio recording (applies to a specific song, not recordings of it)
  3. Video Synchronization License, which allows you to make copies of a song in a video (applies to livestreaming and to specific songs, not recordings)
  4. Master Recording License, which allows you to use a pre-existing recording (covers recordings, not original compositions)
  5. Public Performance License, which allows you to perform music in a public gathering

For example, said Lamm, you need a Master Recording License in order to use backing tracks. To use Shane & Shane’s recording of “His Mercy Is More,” you would need a Master Recording License and a Video Synchronization License.

Copyright law does provide something called the “Religious Service Exemption,” which allows “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.” But it is important to note that this exemption only applies to copyrighted work played during a worship service. It does not apply, for example, to background music playing while people are fellowshipping in a foyer.

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Jessica Mouser is a writer for ChurchLeaders.com. She has always had a passion for the written word and has been writing professionally for the past two years. When Jessica isn't writing, she enjoys playing the piano, reading, and spending time with her friends and family.