I began playing church music with a worship band in Baton Rouge in the late 90’s. We travelled a good bit—hauling speakers, gear, and our trusty overhead projection machine all over the southeastern United States. I remember the first time someone asked our “minister of transparencies” if we had a CCLI license to project the lyrics we would sing that night. We didn’t know how to respond; we’d never heard of such a thing.
At some point, every church or ministry needs to address their policies on honoring copyright law. Some aspects of copyright law can be fuzzy, but others are quite clear. Creators of materials, songs, videos, images and other media are legally due certain credits and compensations, and churches that neglect these people not only break the law, but rob and mistreat those whose creations benefit their church. Here are four tips I’d offer to help your church understand and honor copyright laws.
- Choose to do all you can to keep copyright laws as a church. Keeping copyright laws is a spiritual issue, not just a legal or economic one; treat it as such. Set the tone for those you lead by framing this as an issue of integrity, not just of compliance with the law. This may involve creating a church-wide policy for copyrighted materials, acquiring the appropriate licenses and permissions, and in some cases changing the way you have operated so that you are not participating in what copyright law would label “illegal activity.” If the way your church handles copyrighted materials wouldn’t honor Christ in front of those who the laws protect, you need a change.
- Have a point-person in your church who acts as your local authority on copyright issues. This will require some work on the front end: this person will need to study up on what is permissible and what is not. There are copyright issues around duplication of literature, lyrics and their usage in services, movie-clips and media, and a host of other materials. Here’s a good base rule: if you didn’t create it yourselves, know how the law speaks about how it can be used. Let your point person help your church examine what they are doing well and what will need revision.
- Make sure you have and renew all the licenses you need. There are a number of licenses out there that cover certain areas of copyrighted materials but do not cover everything you’d need to be legal. For instance, a standard CCLI license enables you to print and project a large catalogue of songs in church services, but it does not cover the use and performance of these songs in other settings or mediums, like online streaming or a community worship gathering in a park. Anytime you use materials or created content that is not yours, know the ways and the settings in which you are legally permitted to use them.
- When in doubt, bring in help. Whether you enlist local authorities on copyright law or find experts online, go to those who know more than you and listen to them. Ignorance is never a valid excuse in legal settings; take advantage of those in your community who can help your church walk through the murky waters of copyright law with integrity.
One of the best resources for educating yourself on copyright law for the church that I’ve seen online is the Copyright Community. Here is their explanation of blanket licenses for the church; it would give you a great overview of what your church might need to get up-to-date with your copyright licenses.