U.S. Copyright – Religious Service Exemption

My friend Susan (better known as the Copyright Queenwrote a great blog post about U.S. Copyright that I wanted to pass along to churches. I get this question a lot, too, and figured you’d want to know! Here’s a my summary of what she said:

One of the most common questions is “I thought churches have an exemption for performance rights. Why do we need a performance license?”

The U.S. Copyright Law actually provides an exemption for churches in one important area: Religious Service Exemption. Exempts performance and display of copyrighted work of a religious natureduring religious services.

Remember that copyright owners have five exclusive rights: 1) reproduction, 2) display, 3) derivative, 4) distribution, and 5) performance. So, the exemption covers display and performance but ONLY for works of a religious nature in a religious service. This means that performance of non-religious songs during a service are not exempt, and music played or performed outside a religious service requires permission from the copyright owner(s).

Many churches today play or perform music outside the service, and some of the most common examples are:

  1. concerts
  2. seminars and conferences
  3. playing music throughout the church’s facility (in the lobby or narthex before and after services, in books stores or coffee houses and other areas of the church)
  4. music-on-hold
  5. social events like BBQs, youth gatherings, dinners, etc.
  6. dance or aerobics classes

NOTE: some non-profit concerts may also be exempt if 3 criteria area met: 1) no fee is charged (including offerings); 2) the performers, producers or organizers are not paid, and 3) there is no profit motive.

If churches want to legally play or perform non-exempt music, they need to obtain annual facility or special events licenses from ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, the U.S. Performance Rights Organizations (PROs). These three PRO licenses cost about $700/year, plus reporting and possible additional fees throughout the year.

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Anthony Coppedge
Anthony has worked in the secular world of A/V, the ministry world of church staff and the para-church ministry of three companies that serve the church space (Auxano, Fellowship Technologies and Worlds of Wow!). Today, his consultancy focuses on helping churches and para-church ministries leverage appropriate systems, processes and technologies for more effective ministry. Anthony leads out of his strengths of effectively caring for people, efficiently managing resources and enabling scalable growth. He has been consulting, teaching, writing and speaking to church and business leaders for nearly 20 years.

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