Distribution of Copyrighted Materials

Check before distributing materials to ensure you’re not in violation of copyright law.

Church Law and Tax 1997-11-01


Key point. One of a copyright owner’s exclusive rights is the right to publicly distribute copies of the work. A church violates this right when it distributes or makes available unauthorized copies to the public.

! A federal appeals court ruled that a church violates the copyright law when it publicly distributes an unauthorized copy of copyrighted materials. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter—Day Saints (the “Church”) acquired a single copy of a copyrighted genealogical text and made several unauthorized copies which were distributed to the Church’s “branch libraries.” When the copyright owner learned of the Church’s actions, it demanded that further distribution be stopped immediately. The Church recalled and destroyed many of the copies that it had made. It was concerned that nine libraries continued to possess unauthorized copies, and it wrote them each a letter asking them to locate and return any offending copies. The copyright owner visited a number of libraries, and found unauthorized copies at two locations. The owner sued the Church for copyright infringement. A federal appeals court ruled that the Church might be liable for copyright infringement. It observed:

A copyright infringement is a violation of “any of the exclusive rights of the copyright owner.” One of those exclusive rights is the right “to distribute copies … of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending.” Generally, as permitted by what is known as the first—sale doctrine, the copyright owner’s right to distribute a copyrighted work does not prevent the owner of a lawful copy of the work from selling, renting, lending, or otherwise disposing of the lawful copy. For example, a library may lend an authorized copy of a book that it lawfully owns without violating the copyright laws. However, distributing unlawful copies of a copyrighted work does violate the copyright owner’s distribution right and, as a result, constitutes copyright infringement. In order to establish “distribution” of a copyrighted work, a party must show that an unlawful copy was disseminated “to the public.”

The court agreed with the copyright owner in this case that when a library “adds a work to its collection, lists the work in its index or catalog system, and makes the work available to the borrowing or browsing public, it has completed all the steps necessary for distribution to the public.”

Application. This case illustrates an important point-“public distribution” is one of the exclusive rights of a copyright owner. This means that no other person or organization, including a church, can publicly distribute unauthorized copies of a copyrighted work. To illustrate, a Sunday School teacher who makes unauthorized copies of a copyrighted article and distributes them to each member of her class has committed copyright infringement by violating the copyright owner’s exclusive right of public distribution. Of course, as this court noted, churches that acquire a lawful copy of a copyrighted work are free to sell, rent, or otherwise dispose of that copy. For example, a church could sell used books in its library without violating the copyright owners’ exclusive right of public distribution, because it is distributing lawfully acquired copies. This is known as the “first sale” doctrine. Hotaling v. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter—Day Saints, 118 F.3d 199 (4th Cir. 1997). [ Infringement of Copyright Law]

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