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9 Common Church Copyright Myths

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

Using popular worship songs in your ministry can help your members engage in worship, but there are some risks. A simple Google search would provide you with a plethora of articles about copyright laws, but we all know you can’t trust everything you read on the internet. While some of the information is correct, the Legal Services team at UMC Support hopes to clear up some of the common misunderstandings that we’ve encountered.

Myth #1: "Churches are exempt from music performance licensing."

Truth: The religious service exemption states that churches do not need a performance license to play or perform Christian and secular music in worship services. Only musical works (music and lyrics) and non-dramatic literary works (like poems, prose, short stories, books, periodicals) are exempt. It is essential to understand that this exemption only covers two of the six rights – performance and display – specifically "during services at a place of worship or other religious assemblies." The exemption does not cover performance activities at a place of worship for social, educational, fundraising, or entertainment purposes. Your church will need a license for these other types of religious activities.

Myth #2: "The religious service exemption allows us to broadcast my church's worship service."

Truth: While the exemption allows churches to perform activities such as singing copyrighted music and reciting poems in sermons without first obtaining permission, this exemption does not extend to retransmitting a service containing copyrighted material. The Congressional history shows that exemption does not extend to broadcasts or other transmissions to the public, even if the product is sent from a religious entity. If the church broadcasts, webcasts, livestreams, podcasts, or records worship services that include copyrighted material, it will need a streaming license or written permission from the owner for each work used.

Myth #3: "We don't copy anything. We just project lyrics during worship service. We are safe."

Truth: Interesting point! Especially since the display is exempted under the religious service exemption. But a copyright issue arises when someone has first entered those lyrics into a computer or has written them down on transparency. That's an act of reproduction, which is not exempt under the religious service exemption. Therefore, if your church reproduces lyrics in any form and projects the copied version during worship service, your church will need a license that grants the reproduction right, or written permission from the owner to reproduce, for any copyrighted work used in this way.

Myth #4: "My church does not perform music outside of worship services, so we are covered."

Truth: This is very rarely the case. With some reflection, you may recognize that your church is playing music outside of the worship services, including activities like retreats, picnics, conferences and seminars, Vacation Bible School, camps, youth group gatherings, weddings, on-hold music, music played before and after worship service, community events, and in the daycare setting. None of these activities are considered part of a worship service and would not be exempt under the religious service exemption. Any copyrighted material used in these church-related activities would require appropriate licensing depending on how the material is being used during the event.

Myth #5: "We only use the hymnal in our services, we never project the lyrics, and we don't stream our services. We don’t need a license."

Truth: Great! If that's 100% true, all the time, without exception, then you are fine. But considering the realities of church music ministries, it's usually not the case. Sooner or later, someone will probably want to use a song, not in the hymnal, and they may wish to project lyrics on the screen. Or other sub-ministries of the church may need to create a song sheet. Or retreats and camps may need a custom songbook. Weddings and funerals may require a special insert into the program. And if any of these events are recorded, churches will run into copyright issues of reproduction, recording, and distribution.

Myth #6: "If it's in the hymnal, it is free to use however we choose."

Truth: Hymnals are also copyrighted, and there are limitations on how the material may be used, even if your church has purchased the hymnals. Hymns that are listed in the hymnal as being in the public domain may be reproduced without permission. Lyrics from copyrighted hymns may be reproduced in the worship bulletin and displayed on a screen if the church has published hymnals for the congregation and if the reproduction is done following the copyright requirements in the hymnal. One typical requirement is to correctly note the copyright information in the bulletin or on the screen. Consult the hymnal and any related license for proper use of the copyrighted songs in a hymnal.

Myth #7: "We can show a video and/or lyrics using YouTube."

Truth: YouTube videos can be shown in your church, provided the video is on an official channel, and you have permission from the copyright owner. An official YouTube channel is considered a channel owned and operated by the owner of copyrighted material. YouTube's Terms of Service specifies that content on the site should only be accessed for "personal, non-commercial use" except where "prior written permission is obtained from YouTube and, if applicable, the respective rights holders [the copyright owner]" of the content. Meaning, you must have written permission from the owner of the material or have an appropriate license that grants the necessary permissions based on how you want to use the material. It is also important to note that the material must be original work, not derivative if your license does provide permission to show the material. For example, if your license grants permissions to reproduce, distribute, and display the song "Great Are You Lord" by David Leonard, and you find the music on YouTube, but it is not labeled as the "official video," then you do not have permission to use that version. You need to contact the owner of that version and obtain written permission to use it as your church intends or continue searching for the official video. This also applies to lyric videos. Often these videos are uploaded to the publisher's YouTube channel and/or embedded on the publisher's website with details of how they permit them to be used. It is considered consent if the description indicates that they intend to be used in a church service. As a general rule, it is recommended that you do not use YouTube to show videos, including lyric videos, without the copyright owner's explicit permission.

Myth #8: "I can just use Google to find images for Sunday's bulletin."

Truth: Wrong! UNLESS you have received permission to use the image first, it is a violation. The rule of thumb here is to assume that any image you find online is copyrighted material, and you must obtain written authorization from the creator before using the image.

Myth #9: "The fair use law means that I can use the image I found online without permission from the creator since we are considered nonprofit."

Truth: Fair use is probably not what you expect and is rarely available in a church setting. Whether or not you are within the boundaries of fair use depends on your situation and a balanced application of the law's four factors:

1) the purpose of use, 2) the nature of use, 3) the amount and substantiality used, and 4) the market effect.

The fair use exceptions may be available when a church, including a Sunday School class, uses a copyrighted work or a part thereof for teaching or comment purposes. In the educational context, the U.S. Copyright Office has published a helpful advisory circular containing guidelines for fair uses of copyrighted works:

We hope this information will help you avoid some common mistakes when dealing with copyright laws. You can view all articles relating to copyright here:

  • Overview of Copyright Law

  • Copyright Guidelines for Video and Images

  • Church Copyright License Options

  • Infringement: Did you know?

Still confused? 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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