Do Pastors Own Sermons?
What churches and ministers must know about copyright law

Christianity Today explores the topic of who owns a pastor's sermon in its January/February issue. Churches and pastors may find this subject difficult to discuss, especially when sales of published sermons start to significantly add up.

Frank Sommerville, ManagingYourChurch.com's Editorial Advisor and regular contributor, shared his expertise in the Christianity Today article:

Disputes over the copyrights of pastors' sermons aren't likely to go away, said Frank Sommerville, a Dallas-based attorney who specializes in nonprofit law. That's partly because of the money at stake, and partly because current copyright law is stacked against pastors.

Sommerville says that under the Copyright Act of 1976, a pastor's sermons qualify as "work for hire." That means the copyrights and intellectual property rights actually belong to their employer.

"It's not the answer that pastors expect," said Sommerville. "They've always taken the position that God gave them the sermon as part of their ministry. It never crossed their minds that there would be a law that would govern their sermons."

(See the article online for the full context of Sommerville's comments.)

Even if pastors write sermons at home, outside of office hours, the argument could still be made that those sermons are works for hire since creating sermons is one of the most important functions a pastor performs on behalf of an employing church, says Richard R. Hammar, senior editor of Church Law & Tax Report.

In the Essential Guide to Copyright Law for Churches, Hammar outlines more information that churches and pastors should know about the copyright of sermons:

  • The church owns the copyright in the sermons, unless the parties have expressly agreed otherwise in a signed writing that meets the requirements of section 201(b).
  • Any written agreement between a church and a minister that transfers copyright ownership in works for hire to the minister may constitute inurement of church assets to the personal benefit of the minister in violation of section 501( c )(3) of the tax code. This jeopardizes the church's tax-exempt status.
  • The church has the exclusive right to copy and distribute the minister's sermons. To illustrate, if a minister's sermons are recorded and distributed publicly, and the minister resigns his or her position and accepts a position at another church, he or she does not have any legal rights with respect to the sermons preached at the previous church. Any further public distribution of the sermons could be done only by the previous church, and not the minister.
  • The minister would not have the legal authority to publish a book based on the sermons that he or she has preached at the church, since the church is the copyright owner of the sermons (as works for hire). As a result, only the church can create, publish, and distribute publications based on the sermons.
  • If the church receives royalties on the sales of the works for hire, this may generate unrelated business income tax.
  • If the church receives royalties on the sales of works for hire, this may violate the "operational test" under section 501( c )(3) of the tax code (which requires that public charities be operated exclusively for exempt purposes), thereby jeopardizing the church's tax-exempt status.
  • If the church receives royalties from the publication and sale of a work for hire, and remits them back to the employee-author, this may constitute prohibited inurement that will jeopardize the church's tax-exempt status.

For more information on how copyright law relates to churches, order theEssential Guide to Copyright Law for Churches.

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This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations

Comments

Displaying 1–7 of 7 comments

Anonymous

March 10, 2014  10:13am

Not to sound self righteous but who cares. When the Apostle Paul wrote his letters to specific churches who wanted them to be shared with others. No royalties. Just the expectation/hope of lives changed and disciples made.

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John

February 20, 2014  8:58pm

Perhaps these are reasons many of the TV megastar preachers do not accept a salary from their church - they get millions from their books/sermons which s better than any salary.

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Sharon Hurkens

February 20, 2014  6:33pm

Wow! Then I guess all the books written and published and the authors making money off them is illegal. This is so out there and actually ridiculous

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Ted Richardson

February 20, 2014  12:15pm

I can see this to some extent, but it does seem a bit out of line with other groups such as doctors who work for hospitals and write articles and books on certain areas of their studies. Also, lawyers and judges who write various books and things. Perhaps the 501(C) (3) is the difference. Thanks for the information! Ted Richardson Christ Gospel Church Tyler, TX834358

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M Bryan Rice

February 18, 2014  3:38pm

No! Only if you are occasional and treated as an invited guest speaker or a traveling evangelist are you entitled to your masterpiece. If you have a written or spoken agreement, paid or not, you are employed by the church in which you accept assignment. Get over it.

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PeterM

February 18, 2014  11:54am

Ok, so I am a bivocational pastor who is not paid by the church, I assume since there is no compensation involved I own my sermons. Is that a correct interpretation?

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Mark Adams

February 18, 2014  10:55am

How much would a sermon need to be changed in order to not violate these rules? Can the pastor be allowed to take his notes if and when he leaves the church? They would probably be considered of no value to the church and a future pastor would probably wish to prepare his own notes. If the church tells the pastor to dispose of his notes when he leaves is it acceptable for the pastor to put them in the trash and then remove them (or just take the notes without putting them in the trash since the church has no desire to keep them)? They have been discarded and therefore the church has shown they are of no value to the church.

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