Copyright and licensing issues have become complex and challenging for churches.

It requires dedicated time, research and follow-up to remain legal in ministry today. And we must be aware that copyright laws exist, not for the benefit of churches, but solely for the financial benefit of the copyright owner. There can be serious legal and financial consequences for failing to meet these federal laws.

Here are the basics of copyright law:

Copyright is not needed for worship

You do not need to obtain a performance license to play, sing, perform, or present music in your congregational worship service in your church. This is allowed by the religious exemption clause in the USA copyright law. It is important to understand that this exemption covers only your congregational worship service in your church. It does not cover copying, broadcasting, telecasting, webcasting, recording, or any other use of the music. These uses may be covered by obtaining permissions from the copyright holder or obtaining one of numerous other types of licenses.

Copyright is needed for everything else

The following activities commonly engaged in by churches are not covered by the religious exemption clause or by CCLI or other music licenses. For any of these activities, the church must obtain permission from the copyright holder of the music to be used or performed (live or recorded) or obtain a performance license:

  • Summer camps (including talent shows, campfires, group singing, worship)
  • Picnics & BBQs
  • Vacation Bible School
  • Carnivals and festivals
  • Church dinners and banquets
  • Special programs outside of worship services
  • Youth events and meetings
  • Conferences, festivals, convocations
  • Retreats
  • Concerts
  • Daycare programs
  • Coffee houses
  • Karaoke
  • Meetings
  • Parties

Normally, performance licenses for music in the above settings can be obtained from ASCAP, SESAC, and BMI for the music that each one of those organizations covers. If the music you want to use is handled by more than one of these organizations, then you will need a performance license from each company involved. It is wise to read up on Grand Performance Rights prior to obtaining your releases.

Here are five more basic points every church needs to know about copyright:

  1. There is no music license that covers all hymns and songs in our United Methodist hymnals and songbooks.
  2. The source of a song is not relivent in determining which license covers what song. It is entirely based upon the copyright holder or copyright administrator of the song. This information is found at the bottom of each copyrighted hymn or in a separate index, usually at the back of the book.
  3. A license covers only those copyright holders listed on the license’s website. “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” UMHymnal #140, for instance, is copyrighted by Hope Publishing Co, which is covered by CCLI. Any of the Taizé selections, on the other hand, are copyrighted by either the Taizé Community or GIA Publishing, neither of which is covered by CCLI.
  4. It is always the responsibility of the church or end user to verify which license, if any, covers any particular piece of music. The most up-to-date version of this information is always found on the licensing company’s website and is subject to change at any time.
  5. Private companies are beginning to emerge that will handle these copyright and licensing tasks for churches for a fee, much as CCLI, LicenSing, and provide similar services for the copying and projection of hymn and song lyrics for use by churches in bulletins and worship. There are three main music licensing companies that cover the reproduction of hymns and songs in church worship services:

CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc.)

LicenSing (Logos Productions)
(click on Worship & Preaching) (GIA Music, Inc)

Want to learn more?  Click here to access the General Board of Discipleship website for complete information on copyright.

This information is based on material provided courtesy of GBOD 2012.