copyright laws

Complying with Copyright Laws

It's illegal to use someone else's creative work without permission, even for a good cause

In our digital culture, it seems everything has a “share” button on it. For ministries, sharing the intellectual property of others—like photos, music, and video—could be a violation of copyright laws. Ministry leaders must understand and follow these laws to avoid costly fines and ensure that artists are justly compensated.

  Wondering how copyright applies to schools and classrooms?
  Check out Copyright Guidance for the Classroom.

What is Copyright?

Copyright law is designed to protect people who produce original literary, musical, dramatic, artistic, or other works. It covers nearly everything that can be seen, heard or touched: books, CDs, movies, photographs, plays, and more.

The law gives original authors the exclusive right to:

  • Copy, print or reprint the work.
  • Perform it publicly.
  • Sell or distribute it.
  • Revise it, arrange it, or transform it.
  • Record it.

These rights belong to the person who created the content, not anyone who has access to it.

The existence of a copyright isn’t always obvious. U.S. law doesn’t require a copyrighted work to bear a copyright notice, so it’s a good idea to research copyright information before displaying or copying work that isn’t original.

Someone who infringes upon a creator’s rights can be fined from $500 to $20,000 per infringed work, even if the violation was unintentional. If an organization knowingly breaks the law, an additional $100,000 penalty can be added.

The way to avoid infringing on a creator’s rights is to obtain permission first.  Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.

What Should Churches Know?

From practicing choir songs to publishing the monthly newsletter, there are plenty of instances when ministry personnel deal with copyright issues. Here are a few “hot spots” for copyright infringement:


Playing songs. Ministries receive a very limited exemption from copyright law: During worship services, churches usually are permitted to play or perform any song or reading, except for dramatic secular works like operas or plays. In every other setting, such as picnics and on-hold music, ministries must follow the same rules as any other organization. That is, they must receive permission before playing or performing copyrighted music.

Distributing lyrics and sheet music. Churches must always have permission to distribute lyrics and sheet music for copyrighted songs, including during worship services. Purchasing and using hymnals is one way to comply with copyright law—the cost of licensing the lyrics and sheet music is included in the cost of hymnals. However, purchasing hymnals generally does not grant the church permission to copy lyrics to projector slides or to make photocopies of the hymnal pages. Additional licensing will typically be required for that kind of use. The copyright information contained within the hymnal should have more information on this issue.

Rehearsing with backing tracks. It may help choir members to get a feel for Sunday’s music selections by listening to the songs’ backing tracks. Backing tracks are often copyrighted, and burning multiple CD copies without permission is against the law. Licensing services can help churches make sure their copies are within the law.


Displaying photos or graphics. Whether or not a copyright is indicated on a piece of visual art, it may be protected. Even photos on “public” social sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr belong to the person who created the art. Get permission from the copyright holder, or opt for art that is in the public domain. If the church purchases stock photos for use on websites or newsletters, be sure that your use of the photo is within the terms of the license. It may be a good idea to use original photos that church personnel take themselves that are sufficiently distinct from copyrighted photos. 

Be mindful that some people may not want to appear in photos that will be shared. Consider crafting a Photo Use Agreement with the help of a local attorney to document when people grant permission to appear in photos.

Playing movies. Purchasing movies generally includes the right to play the video in a personal setting, not as a group—even if the church doesn’t charge admission to the screening. It’s a good idea to contract with a video licensing company to make sure your ministry is receiving the proper licenses. This includes obtaining proper permissions for “At the Movies” sermon series presented at ministries. Typically a pastor creates a sermon based on themes from a popular film, showing snippets of the film to illustrate points in the pastor’s sermon.  A video licensing company can grant the ministry a license that covers pastors using movies to illustrate sermon points, offering special event movie nights, using movies for teaching and training purposes, and more.  
Showing a short clip of copyrighted work to illustrate a teaching point in a sermon or Bible study may be permitted under “fair use” guidelines in some limited situations (summarized below).

Playing online video clips. When someone uploads a video clip to an online service like YouTube, the creator of the video retains the copyright privileges. Contact the copyright holder before playing these clips in a group setting.


Copying poems, book passages, and other written works. Unless the church has permission from the author to do so, printing or otherwise displaying copyrighted written works in a group setting—such as a church newsletter or bulletin—is a no-no. Poems that are credited to “anonymous” may be copyrighted, as well; an Internet search may help you find the original source of the work to ask for permission to use it. Churches have paid thousands of dollars in damages for making unauthorized copies of written works.

Quoting Scripture. Yes, even most versions of the Bible are often copyrighted. When copying Scripture to projector slides, in the church newsletter, and in other public venues, follow the publishing company’s copyright policies. Many Bible publishers have generous policies that allow for quoting, as long as the source is cited.


Churches that broadcast, stream, or offer recordings of their activities should be doubly aware of copyright issues. While churches are typically permitted to play and perform copyrighted songs during worship services, the law generally only extends to live, in-person performances. Another license is often required to play, perform, or otherwise use any copyrighted material in a recording or broadcast. Some churches choose to limit their broadcasts to sermons and other non-copyrighted content. Others receive permission or purchase licenses to use copyrighted material.

How to Do it Legally

The only sure way to avoid infringing on a creator’s rights is to obtain permission before using their work. Some authors grant permission freely. Others may charge a fee or may refuse to let you use their work at all. In addition, churches can use the following avenues to follow copyright laws:

Only use materials that are not copyrighted. Some works are freely available because their copyrights have expired and they are considered part of the “public domain.” In other cases, content is available through Creative Commons licenses, under which artists’ work is more freely shareable.

Obtain permission from copyright owners. You may be able to locate the copyright owner using the information listed on the copyrighted material. If there is no copyright information listed, contact the publisher directly, since that organization may be the copyright owner. You may also search the records of the U.S. Copyright Office or the Copyright Clearance Center. Although you may obtain permission to use a work without paying a royalty, the process can be time-consuming. Expect to wait four to six weeks for a response from the U.S. Copyright Office.

Stay within “fair use” guidelines. Fair use allows the use of copyrighted material without the author's permission for educational purposes, criticism, news reporting, and research. The original author must be credited for material used. 

However, there are no guidelines for how much of a protected work can be copied without permission or for determining the effect of copying on a work's value. If it appears that your use of the work harms the owner's ability to earn income from the work, a court may find that fair use does not apply.

Buy a blanket license. Blanket licenses allow the use of specific copyrighted work for certain purposes while the license is in effect. The licenses allow churches to use thousands of copyrighted songs and motion pictures, but they have limits. Be aware of what a license includes before making a purchase. The following licensing companies may be helpful to your church:

  • Christian Copyright Licensing International: CCLI offers several types of licenses that allow churches to use a large catalog of copyrighted music.

  • Christian Copyright Solutions: CCS has a variety of options for licensing copyrighted church music.

  • Christian Video Licensing International: A CVLI license allows churches to show videos from more than 40 studios, including major Hollywood studios and most Christian video producers. Licensed churches may use video clips to illustrate sermon points and show videos and DVDs in Sunday school classes and youth meetings.

  • Broadcast Music, Inc.: A BMI license allows organizations to publicly perform musical works. The organization represents approximately 600,000 songwriters, composers and music publishers. The company collects license fees on behalf of those creators. “Public performances” include radio airplay, broadcast and cable television carriage, Internet and live and recorded performances.

  • The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers: An ASCAP license gives you permission to perform any of the works in its repertory. It has a searchable database of its millions of works, along with writer, publisher and recording artist information. It collects license fees and distributes royalties to the creative artists it represents.

Obtain a legal opinion. If the ministry has any questions about whether its use of copyrighted materials is legal or not, it should obtain a formal opinion from a licensed attorney with experience in intellectual property law. 

Although there are a few limited exceptions to copyright protection, your ministry should always investigate the copyright status of any literary, musical, dramatic, or audiovisual works before using them. Simply giving credit to the creator of copyrighted works used in a bulletin or program is no defense against charges of copyright infringement.

Updated September 2019

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