What You Need to Know About Copyright

There’s a mindset in churches that, because they are a nonprofit, they can go ahead and use media any way they want, regardless of how they acquired that media. The mindset assumes that it’s OK to use media as long as you’re not making any money at it.

However, have you ever read that FBI warning? It reads:

“The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to five years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.”

Some pretty strong language, right? Did you notice the part that says “without monetary gain”? Yeah, that includes churches!

Now, some would ask me to define “criminal copyright infringement.” OK, here’s how it reads:

“There are four essential elements to a charge of criminal copyright infringement. In order to sustain a conviction under section 506(a), the government must demonstrate: (1) that a valid copyright; (2) was infringed by the defendant; (3) willfully; and (4) for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain. Attempts to infringe are prohibited to the same extent as the completed act. Conspiracies to violate the Act can be prosecuted under 18 U.S.C. § 371. A minority of courts also require that the government prove the absence of a first sale, and refer to this as a fifth element of a section 506(a) offense. However, the majority position is that the absence of a first sale is an affirmative defense. Thus, the government does not need to allege it in the indictment or to present initially evidence to negate the defense.”
US Justice department website

Some of you may have caught number 4 above, “for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain.” Think it doesn’t apply to churches? I would contend that because churches collect money in the forms of tithes and offerings in the same service where copyrighted media may be used, the argument could be made that the church gains from the use of copyrighted materials. And for those of you who want to play the ignorant card, I ask you, when has ignorance of the law ever been an excuse?

And if you think churches don’t get prosecuted, think again. Lakewood Church was sued for over $3 million for playing a song by The American Dollar. A church in Massachusetts was sued for $2,500 for posting a poem on their website that was not theirs.

What is included in copyrighted material?

Well, pretty much everything. The general premise is that if you create something and put it into a tangible form (critical!), then you are able to copyright it. According to clickandcopyright.com, “The work of authorship must be in tangible form. This means that copyright can apply to a song, a written work, a photograph, a film or a graphic design. Copyright protection does not apply to abstract ideas, or to names or titles.

So a picture, song, video, design, poem, book, sonnet … it can all be protected, and if you are the author, you are authorized to the following:

  1. Mechanical rights: to reproduce the work, distribute it, create derivative works and to perform the work publicly.
  2. Publishing rights: If you authored a song, but have not written the music for it, no one else but you can write the notes without your permission.
  3. Performance rights: self-explanatory. I have heard there is an exception for performance rights when in a worship service, but you will want to do your own research on that.
  4. Synchronization (sync) rights: Any time audio is included in a video or vice versa, there are specific rights for that, too.

Here’s where it gets messy

People don’t always claim their copyright by announcing it or filing it to be official; however, it’s still theirs. Are you beginning to see how narrow the road is to stay legal? And with the potential for severe penalties, it can seem pretty hopeless.

However, there is hope  Organizations have cropped up to help you! CCLI is definitely the most well-known, and they offer a lot of resources to help you out, including a CVLI license to cover projecting media. Another good one to know about is Christian Copyright Solutions with their WorshipCast licensing product, among others.

There are ways to have a dynamic and engaging worship service while staying legal and safe. We live in a litigious society where everyone is looking for something to sue over; why give them a reason? And for those churches that are using Hollywood clips and popular worship songs, do you have the financial resources to go up against BMI, ASCAP, SESAC or the big studios in a legal battle?

Finally, as if you needed another reason to obey the law, we are representatives of Christ, and what does it say about Him if we are stealing other people’s media and using it in His name? I don’t want to go on the guilt train here, but we have to be cognizant of how we are presenting not only ourselves but our Lord and Savior to the world, and I don’t think He would ever want us to come across as thieves.

How does your church operate? Do you think there are better options out there for you?

Disclaimer: I am not an attorney and I provide this information as a means for introducing the topic and providing sufficient content to allow you to do your own research. I am not liable for any legal action that comes from not obeying current copyright laws, and I do not make any claims that the information I have presented is complete or comprehensive.  

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Tim Adams
I've been working in the trenches of church tech since I was a teenager recording audio for my church. I've served in every position and am familiar with every aspect of tech and aspire to be a resource to all media ministries. There is no excuse for low quality tech and I am on a mission to inspire others to give their best for God in their service!