Right Those Copyright Wrongs

How to know if you’re stealing what belongs by law to others.

In 1996, the Girl Scouts were big-time criminals. So were the Boy Scouts. Inner-city campers, too. And none of them knew it.

That was the year the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) took on the American Camping Association and insisted that camps pay royalties for the use of copyrighted songs. Around countless campfires, children and their leaders had been singing copyrighted songs without asking permission, ASCAP claimed.

ASCAP noted that every singing session was a public performance of copyrighted work, and this represented forfeited income for the composers and publishers of the music. ASCAP demanded that camps pay royalty fees for using the songs.

The next year ASCAP decided that camps did not have to pay license fees if “there is no direct or indirect economic gain from the performance of music.”

Churches and Copyright Law

Churches routinely abuse copyright law, often because they’re ignorant of relevant legislation. How can churches comply with copyright law, not just to stay out of trouble, but also to give composers and authors their rightful due? First, they should realize that copyright is legal protection of intellectual property. Property is a tangible thing, so an idea cannot be copyrighted unless it is put in writing or displayed graphically.

A copyright automatically exists once an idea becomes a thing, but most original works are officially copyrighted through the United States Copyright Office of the Library of Congress (202-707-3000). That office copyrights works of literature, music, drama, and choreography; photography, graphic design, and artwork; sound and video recordings; and electronic images such as website designs, material from an Internet site, and computer software.

If a work was published before 1978, the copyright on it is good for 28 years and renewable for another 28. If published after January 1, 1978, a work’s copyright is good for 28 years and renewable for another 47 years. After the copyright on a work expires, the work is in the public domain, which means it may be freely used unless the material is taken directly from a more recent copyrighted work

Specific Violations

Frank Sommerville, a Houston attorney who represents several churches and Christian organizations, says that copyright violators steal what is rightfully due an author. “The Bible says that a worker is worthy of his wages. When you abuse copyright law, you deprive workers of the wages for what they did,” Sommerville says. He believes that most copyright abuse in churches stems from ignorance rather than deliberate action.

Some churches have been charged with copyright abuse for duplicating and distributing sheet music or lyrics without permission. Other churches violate copyright law when they make transparencies of song lyrics without first obtaining permission or paying royalties.

Musical arrangements that have been published are protected by copyright law. Even recording a service and duplicating cassettes for distribution is a violation of copyright if the work is used without permission.

Some churches mistakenly draw a line between using printed versus visual material, such as slides, transparencies, and computer-generated images, says Howard Rachinski, president of the Portland, Oregon-based Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI, 800-234-2446, www.ccli.com).

“Church leaders think they’re not copying music, just the words,” Rachinski says. “But you’re creating what’s called a fixation when you write, type, or create with a computer any work of authorship such as a song.” All reproduction rights are owned by the songwriter, he says.

When Christian education programs use visuals, copyright problems can abound. In a contemporary issues program, for example, a teacher may tape part of a network news broadcast and replay it in a study group. Perhaps a relevant comment from a speaker in a videotape series will be dubbed into that same tape. Was permission granted that use? If not, both incidents are copyright violations. (Very short segments, under 10 seconds, can generally be shown.)

Increasingly, television and radio broadcasters are offering video and audio copies of programs, or printed transcripts. Caution: Copies cannot be made of these items without permission and perhaps the payment of a fee. Beware of using satellite dishes to capture programming that will then be televised to a church group. That material is for public viewing, not private use. A church must get permission from the channel.

Backgrounds and Designs

The church office is a danger zone for copyright violations. When telephone callers are put on hold, do they hear music from the local Christian radio station or the latest CD? Did the church obtain permission from the music company or station and pay the required fee? If not, you could be a copyright offender. Software applications are also problematic. Many manufacturers offer single-use or multi-use licenses at different prices. Churches cannot buy one copy of software with a single-use license and cost, then install the software at 15 stations. Making unauthorized installations on multiple machines is called “pirating,” and is illegal.

Internet technology has created new copyright perils. As a result, the U.S. Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998. Two aspects of that law are relevant to churches. One is duplicating a website design created by another individual or company; the other is duplicating graphics and music on a site. If a church worker copies a website onto her hard drive, then uploads the material to the church’s Web site, changing only the text, she is violating copyright law.

Borrowing graphics from a web page can also be a problem. Be careful to obtain permission before using logos, designs, photographs, fonts, or music you found on a website. For example, if the local newspaper publishes a beautiful photo of the church at Christmastime, you can’t post that photo to the church’s website without getting permission from the newspaper and paying a fee, if required.

Who Owns Sermons

Considerable confusion surrounds the ownership of work produced by church employees on the job. If a pastor’s sermons and papers (created on church time) are published, the church owns the material, unless it specifically assigns rights to the pastor.

Similarly, if the music director writes music on church time, the material is the church’s “intellectual property,” which means any income from the work belongs to the church.

Guidelines for Compliance

To ensure copyright compliance, church leaders should develop policies, then distribute a list to its staff. Some items to include:

  • The church must purchase an annual license from CCLI or obtain permission and pay royalties directly to publishers whenever their music is used in printed, visual, or electronic form.
  • Employees may not install duplicate copies of software without permission from the church business administrator or systems manager.
  • Employees or volunteers may not duplicate materials for public use in any form without clearance from a person designated as copyright administrator.
  • All materials posted on a church’s website that are not directly created by church employees must be reviewed and approved for copyright compliance.

Copyright compliance is based on this principle: “When in doubt, don’t.” That means: Don’t duplicate or display materials publicly without the clear understanding that permission has been obtained and fees paid.

This article first appeared in Your Church magazine, May/June 1999.

To learn more about copyright law, purchase the downloadable resource Copyright Law: What Every Church Must Know, available on ChurchLawAndTaxStore.com.

Related Topics:

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.

ajax-loader-largecaret-downcloseHamburger Menuicon_amazonApple PodcastsBio Iconicon_cards_grid_caretChild Abuse Reporting Laws by State IconChurchSalary Iconicon_facebookGoogle Podcastsicon_instagramLegal Library IconLegal Library Iconicon_linkedinLock IconMegaphone IconOnline Learning IconPodcast IconRecent Legal Developments IconRecommended Reading IconRSS IconSubmiticon_select-arrowSpotify IconAlaska State MapAlabama State MapArkansas State MapArizona State MapCalifornia State MapColorado State MapConnecticut State MapWashington DC State MapDelaware State MapFederal MapFlorida State MapGeorgia State MapHawaii State MapIowa State MapIdaho State MapIllinois State MapIndiana State MapKansas State MapKentucky State MapLouisiana State MapMassachusetts State MapMaryland State MapMaine State MapMichigan State MapMinnesota State MapMissouri State MapMississippi State MapMontana State MapMulti State MapNorth Carolina State MapNorth Dakota State MapNebraska State MapNew Hampshire State MapNew Jersey State MapNew Mexico IconNevada State MapNew York State MapOhio State MapOklahoma State MapOregon State MapPennsylvania State MapRhode Island State MapSouth Carolina State MapSouth Dakota State MapTennessee State MapTexas State MapUtah State MapVirginia State MapVermont State MapWashington State MapWisconsin State MapWest Virginia State MapWyoming State IconShopping Cart IconTax Calendar Iconicon_twitteryoutubepauseplay