Q&A: Did My Church Infringe on Copyright When Using YouTube Videos in a Livestream Service?

What church leaders must understand about copyright law when doing church online.

Q: I pastor a small, rural church. This past week, due to the social separation recommendations made in response to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak, my family developed and streamed a worship service from my home using Facebook Live. We used worship music and lyrics from YouTube.

After the live event, the video of our worship service was automatically posted to our church’s Facebook page. Not long afterward, I received threatening, system-generated emails saying that my video contained music that might fall under copyright laws. This was unsettling because the videos I used were publicly available on YouTube, which, I assumed, fell under “fair use” consideration. I also have licensing from Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI). During the service, I read our licensing number to make it clear that we weren’t doing anything illegal.

I feel like I tried to do what is right, but I still worry that I could be in trouble for copyright infringement. Did my worship service break any laws?

A: I am afraid you have violated copyright law in numerous ways. I will attempt to explain my main concerns.

Overall, the exception from copyright law for music performed in a religious worship service does not apply to streaming worship services. Note the following important points:

  • CCLI basic licensing does not cover online streaming. The church must purchase a license specifically for streaming that is separate and apart of the CCLI basic license.
  • A church may not broadcast (on the internet or otherwise) the performance of copyrighted music without a license from the copyright owner.
  • A church may not broadcast the lyrics to a copyrighted song without a license from the copyright owner.
  • A church may not record the performance of copyrighted music without a license from the copyright owner.
  • A church may not make copies of its recordings of copyrighted music without a license from the copyright owner.
  • A church may not rebroadcast music/videos created by others without a license from the copyright owner.
  • A church may not download music/videos created by others to rebroadcast them.
  • Facebook has specific requirements for its Facebook Live broadcasts that also must be met.

The easiest solution to keep from breaking copyright law is to omit music from the streamed service. The church already owns the copyright to its sermons, prayers, and announcements.

While there are several sources for obtaining streaming licenses, the most common ones used by churches are CCLI, Christian Video Licensing International (CVLI), Christian Copyright Solutions (CCS), and One License. But keep in mind: Each of the licensing services has limitations and does not cover everything that the church might want to include in a stream of a worship service. Ask a lot of questions and carefully study your agreement to know what kind of licensing you are—and aren’t—purchasing.

It’s essential that you get this right. If you still have questions, consult an attorney with experience helping churches navigate copyright law.

Additional reading

Understanding Worship Music Copyright Law

Hey, Fletch: Is Our Church Website Violating Copyright Law?

Essential Guide to Copyright Law for Churches

Frank Sommerville is a both a CPA and attorney, and a longtime Editorial Advisor for Church Law & Tax.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold 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." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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