Worship Music and Copyright Law

Are song lyrics copyrighted?

Church Law and Tax 1997-05-01


Key point. Copyright infringement can occur when either the music or lyrics of a copyrighted song are copied without permission.

A federal appeals court ruled that copyright infringement had occurred even though only lyrics were copied. The court observed:

Song lyrics enjoy independent copyright protection as “literary works” … and the right to print a song’s lyrics is exclusively that of the copyright holder …. A time-honored method of facilitating singing along with music has been to furnish the singer with a printed copy of the lyrics. Copyright holders have always enjoyed exclusive rights over such copies. While projecting lyrics on a screen and producing printed copies of the lyrics, of course, have their differences, there is no reason to treat them differently for purposes of the Copyright Act.

Application. Many churches make unauthorized copies of song lyrics. Sometimes the lyrics are printed in a church bulletin. In other cases they are duplicated onto a transparency. In either case, or in any other case when lyrics are copied without authorization, copyright infringement has occurred. Church leaders need to understand that lyrics are entitled to copyright protection independently from the musical score. ABKCO v. Stellar Records, 96 F.3d 60 (2nd Cir. 1996). [Copyright Law]

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