Home Worship & Creative Leaders Articles for Worship & Creative Church Fined for Copyright Infringement – Could This Be You?

Church Fined for Copyright Infringement – Could This Be You?

church fined for copyright infringement

The possibility of being a church fined for copyright infringement is a vital question for church leaders who set policies and procedures regarding copyright infringement. I’m always a little stunned to hear someone counter with, “How many churches have been sued for copyright infringement?” In other words, what’s the chance of us getting caught and what are the risks?

A Church Fined for Copyright Infringement? Really?

Two famous lawsuits involving a church fined for copyright infringement raised a major red flag for Christian leaders who have the illusion there is special immunity for churches when it comes to the U.S. Copyright Law, and smaller churches can no longer assume they operate under the radar.

Yesh Music (Richard Cupolo and John Emanuele) filed a complaint on October 28, 2011, claiming that First Baptist Church Smyrna (TN) used two of Yesh’s compositions in videos streamed from their website. The complaint also details Yesh’s assertion that no license was granted for this use. Yesh is seeking $150,000 for each infringement in addition to attorneys’ fees.

The complaint against FBC Smyrna comes on the heels of a much more high profile suit filed by Yesh Music this summer against the nation’s largest church, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church with weekly attendance of 43,000. While Lakewood may have the resources to combat this type of litigation, many smaller churches could find this kind of lawsuit to be devastating. “Federal copyright laws apply to everyone in the country, whether they are a church or a company. There are are no exceptions,” said the plaintiff’s attorney, W. Craft Hughes. “Our clients made the decision to look to the court system to get justice for what’s happened to them.”

Sometimes decision makers need a clear example of potential risks and liabilities before they move to change internal policies. Copyright infringement can be very damaging to an active church or Christian ministry. It is crucial that churches get proper licensing for any copyrighted works that they use and distribute, be they musical or visual.

We believe it is very important to provide helpful, accurate information to churches and nonprofit ministries so they can take the additional steps needed to respect the rights of copyright owners when using their original works of authorship.

Section 501 of the Copyright Act details the liabilities for which a copyright infringer is responsible. Here are few examples of infringement cases, and the damages ordered by the court. According to Richard R. Hammar, J.D., LL.M., CPA, copyright infringement does not require that the infringer “intend” to violate one or more of the copyright owner’s exclusive rights. In many cases, copyright infringers “innocently” commit copyright infringement in the sense that they do not realize that what they are doing is wrong. This is no defense to liability.

Case Law Examples of a Church Fined for Copyright Infringement

Venue Liability for Performance Rights
Case: Polygram International Publishing, Inc. v. NEVADA/TIG, Inc., 855 F. Supp. 1314 (D. Mass. 1994)
Summary: A trade show organizer was ruled liable for the unauthorized performances of copyrighted music of exhibitors during a national trade show. Although the contract signed by exhibitors included clauses that outlined the organizer’s policy on the use of copyrighted works, it did not shift liability. The organizer still retained sufficient control over the exhibitors and could have prohibited exhibits from performing the copyrighted works, but chose not to. The defendant paid $6,000.00 in damages.

Christian Radio Stations
Case: Meadowgreen Music Company v. Voice in the Wilderness Broadcasting, Inv., 789 F. Supp. 823 (E.D. Tex. 1992)
Summary: For Broadcasting copyrighted music without permission, a religious radio station was found guilty of “willful infringement” and paid $52,500 in statutory damages (15 infringements of $3,500.00 each). The station manager defended his actions by claiming that the music was intended for Christian ministry which he was providing through broadcasting their works.

Video Recordings of Concerts
Case: Malaco Incorporated v. Cooper, 2002 WL 1461927 (N.D. Tex. 2002)
Summary: Video recordings were made of a published musician’s concert and made available for sale without authorization. The defendant paid $25,000 for each of the four copyrighted songs on the videos for a total of $100,000.00 plus attorneys’ fees.

CD recordings of Worship Services
Case: Edwards v. Church of God in Christ, 2002 WL 393577 (Mich. App. 2002)
Summary: A professional soloist’s performance during a religious service was recorded, and reproduced onto CDs to be sold. In addition, the solo was miscredited on the product to another musician! The defendant claimed that they were “negligently misappropriated” and was awarded damages of $1,600,000.

Christian Copyright Solutions’ WORSHIPcast license allows churches to stream their performances of more than 16 million Christian and secular songs.