Infringement: Did You Know?

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Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Infringement occurs when you violate one or more of the exclusive rights of a copyright owner. Infringement is a serious matter that may result in a claim of copyright infringement against the person who violates the exclusive rights, as well as against the local church. If you are accused of copyright infringement, the penalties can be significant. An infringer could be responsible for paying the actual dollar amount of damages and profits they obtained, or they can be accountable for statutory fees ranging from $750 to $150,000 "as the court considers just" per infringement, depending on whether the infringement was unintentional or willful. With certain caveats or exceptions, a copyright owner may elect statutory damages instead of actual damages or profits of the infringer. That is especially likely in cases where the infringement generates no real damage or profit. When in doubt about whether a work is copyrighted or a particular use would constitute infringement, the church should always seek appropriate advice. To comply with federal law and avoid a claim for copyright infringement, it is best practice for the church to obtain a license or written permission from the owner, or a representative of the owner, for the work it wants to use.  


What does Public Domain mean?  
When a work is in the public domain, it's free for use by anyone for any purpose without restrictions under copyright law. You can arrange, reproduce, perform, record, publish and use or sell it commercially in any way you like. Essentially, the public owns these works instead of an individual, and anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it. There are four common ways that pieces arrive in the public domain:  

  1. The copyright has expired. 
    • U.S. copyrights eventually expire, and the owner no longer has exclusive rights. As of December 31, 2020, copyright expired for works published in the U.S. in and before 1924. These works are in the public domain. At the end of 2021, works published in 1925 will expire, and so on. For works published after 1977, the copyright will not expire until 70 years after the author's death due to a change in the law.  
  2. The copyright owner failed to follow copyright renewal rules. 
    • Thousands of works published in the U.S. before 1964 fell into the public domain because the copyright was not renewed in time. If you plan to use a work published before 1964, you should research the records of the Copyright Office to determine if a renewal was filed to determine if the work is considered public domain. Even so, you should always obtain documented proof of this determination before using the material.  
  3. The copyright owner deliberately places it in the public domain, known as "dedication."  
    • If, upon viewing a work, you see words such as, "This work is dedicated to the public domain," then it is free for you to use. This type of dedication is rare, and unless there is express authorization placing the work in the public domain, do not assume that the work is free. If in doubt, contact the copyright owner to verify the dedication.  
  4. Copyright law does not protect this type of work.  
    • Copyright law does not protect the titles of books or movies, nor does it protect short phrases such as "Break the ice," "Love is blind, " or "Show me the money. " Copyright also doesn't cover facts, ideas, or theories. You are free to use these without authorization.  

You should use a public domain composition only if you have proof of public domain from a legitimate source, such as a tangible copy of the work with a copyright date old enough to be in the public domain or otherwise stated. If you do not have a legitimate source in your possession, there is no way you can be confident that the work you use is in the public domain, and you could be stuck paying substantial fees. A church should not assume that something is in the public domain simply because copyright information is not on the face of the work. In addition, the fact that one version of a work is in the public domain does not mean that a new copyrighted arrangement of the work can be used without a license or written permission from the copyright holder. Please also note that even if you conclude that a work is in the public domain in the United States, this does not necessarily mean that you are free to use it in other countries. Every nation has its laws governing the length and scope of copyright protection, and these apply to uses of the work within that nation's borders. The current duration of copyright protection for published musical works in the U.S. are as follows:  

  • Works Published Before 1926 – Maximum copyright protection of 95 years has expired – works are in the public domain 
  • Works Published 1926 through 1978 – Maximum Copyright Protection of 95 years from year published 
  • Works Published After 1978 – Life of the longest surviving creator plus 70 years – earliest possible public domain date is 1/1/2049.  

Furthermore, it is possible for a work to be in the public domain, but not a specific performance of the work. For example, the works of William Shakespeare were created prior to copyright laws, and can be used without seeking permission, but this does not mean that all performances of Shakespeare’s plays are in the public domain.  

What does "Royalty-Free" mean? 
Royalty-Free refers to the right to use copyright material without the need to pay royalties or license fees for each use, per each copy or volume sold, or some period of use or sales. These licenses are typically cheaper than most, but contrary to the term, this does NOT mean the works are "free" to use. Generally, it means that you can purchase the music and use it in multiple settings, often for commercial purposes, and not have to pay based on the volume you use.   

In the photography and the illustration industry, royalty-free refers to a copyright license where the user can use the picture without many restrictions based on a one-time payment to the licensor. If you buy a license for a particular image on a royalty-free website, please be sure to check the restrictions specific to the purchase.   

Church Public Domain Resources 

  1. Piano accompaniment recordings offered by Discipleship Ministries is a good resource for public domain tunes from the United Methodist Hymnal and The Faith We Sing.  
  2. is an ecumenical resource with songs from many hymnals across the denominations. Please be sure to pay attention to the copyright notice on each work for more information on usage and restrictions.  
  3. The Cyber Hymnal offers hymns and gospel songs from many denominations and languages, including lyrics, sheet music, audio, pictures, biographies, and history. Please be sure to read the website's Copyrights page in its entirety before using its material in any way. 

United Methodist Book of Worship and Hymnal Ritual Resources 
The United Methodist Book of Worship (1992), owned by The United Methodist Publishing House, is available here. Congregations and other worshiping or church-related educational communities are free to reproduce these resources for worship, and educational purposes, provided the copyright statement included at the end of each piece is included in its entirety. For all other proposed uses, including but not limited to posting these resources on other websites or having them in any item for sale, you must contact   

Further, the United Methodist Publishing House is waiving the need to ask permission to livestream and/or record worship services that read, perform, or display liturgical text from the U.M. Book of Worship. UMPH encourages churches to purchase and utilize streaming licenses to stream copyrighted service music from The United Methodist Hymnal. Many items appear in the U.M. Hymnal by permission of the copyrighted holders, and UMPH cannot give blanket permission to use their intellectual property. No additional permission is required for any United Methodist congregation to reproduce the liturgical text in the context of an online or physically gathered worship service or, during the COVID-19 crisis, to livestream worship services and/or record and post them on a private site extending through December 31, 2021. This permission does not extend to events other than worship services or events where admission is charged, or registration fees are collected. For more information on this, see here. Also, be sure to review our other important copyright articles, below.

Still confused? Need Additional Assistance? 
We understand - it is a lot of material ... and unfortunately the stakes are high! For a small fee, you can engage our copyright services specialty team to help you figure our which license(s) are right for you ministry. If you wish to have our team work for you, simply fill out our Copyright License Questionnaire to begin the process. A valued member of our team will be in touch and get you on the road to copyright peace of mind!

Disclaimer: The information provided in these guidelines is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice. In developing the guidelines, certain assumptions have been made about underlying practices and uses of intellectual property. Any change in those assumptions could affect the application of a particular guideline or recommended best practice. Therefore, while the information provided below may assist a local church, it is not a substitute for legal advice by an attorney with knowledge of copyright law or the written approval of specific copyright holders. If there is any doubt as to whether a particular use or practice violates copyright laws, the local church should seek the written advice of a lawyer or specific written approval of the particular use by the copyright holder or licensing agent.  Further, the local church should maintain a copyright file containing all written advice obtained from an attorney(s), all licenses/permissions for works use, and records of any payments made to licensors or owners of copyrighted works. 


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