My friend Susan (better known as the Copyright Queen) wrote 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:
- seminars and conferences
- 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)
- social events like BBQs, youth gatherings, dinners, etc.
- 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.