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Overview of United States Copyright Law

Updated: Jan 26, 2023


With the growth in virtual worship and digital ministry comes the growth in opportunities for simple mistakes to cause serious issues. Copyright infringement or violations are common issues ministries have faced while transitioning and expanding to digital ministry. The Legal Services team of UMC Support has developed a five-part series to help your ministry understand copyright laws and how to protect your ministry.


Copyright is a form of protection that extends to "original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device." Legally, copyright means that a musician, author, or artist has a limited monopoly on anything they create. Copyright does not require registration. Copyright in work arises when an original work of authorship is fixed in the tangible medium (e.g., when pencil touches paper). Copyright law further provides that "works of authorship include the following categories:

  • literary works;

  • musical works, including any accompanying words;

  • dramatic works, including any accompanying music;

  • pantomimes and choreographic works;

  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;

  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works;

  • sound recordings; and

  • architectural works."

Copyright protection may also extend to compilations and derivative works that are created. A derivative work is a work based on or derived from one or more already existing works. If you use a song or other copyrighted work without the owner's permission, or an appropriate license, you may subject yourself and your organization to substantial fees and legal action.

What are the Rights of a Copyright Owner?

The United States copyright laws grant the owner of copyrighted material six exclusive rights:

  • Reproduction - reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or on material objects, such as discs, cassette tapes, and compact discs (CDs);

  • Adaptation - prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;

  • Distribution - distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;

  • Performance - perform the work publicly in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures, and other audiovisual works to perform the copyrighted work;

  • Display - display the work publicly in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work; and

  • Recording – perform the work publicly using a digital audio transmission if the work is a sound recording

It is important to note that these exclusive rights are distinct from one another, which means that having the right to use a copyrighted work in one of these ways does not mean you automatically have the right to use that work in all of these ways.

Copyright Notice

A copyright notice is a statement placed on copies of a work to inform the public that a copyright owner is claiming ownership of the work. Copyright notice consists of three elements:

  1. The copyright symbol © or ℗ 134 for phonorecords, the word "Copyright," or the abbreviation "Copr."; and

  2. The year of first publication of the work (or creation if the work is unpublished); and

  3. The name of the copyright owner, an abbreviation by which the name can be recognized, or a generally known alternative designation.

A lack of copyright notice should not be treated as a definitive indication that a work is not copyrighted. For more information visit our Legal Services YouTube Playlist.

Copyright law is a complex legal subject, and we hope we have given you a solid foundation. We have two more articles in this series; stay connected with UMC Support through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and our Collaborator Newsletter to get the latest updates.

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