Legal Guidelines for Photo and Video Use

Balance promotion and outreach with privacy and copyright

You just had a successful community event at your church and there are several photos that you think would look perfect in your newsletter and on your website. The pastor delivered an especially inspiring sermon and you want to share it on social media. What is the protocol for using images of people? Do you need their permission? What about broadcasting worship services?

As society becomes increasingly dependent on technology as well as increasingly concerned with individual privacy, there are plenty of questions about liability when it comes to using digital images in ministry publications and websites. Here are a few best practices:

Event Photos and Video

In general, it is acceptable to use a photo or video footage from an organizational event as long as the people photographed are not individually identified. By attending a public event, the individuals would not likely have a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’. However, if you will be identifying the people by name, it is best to have participants sign a photo use agreement

Photos of Children

Posting or publishing photos of children without permission from a parent or legal guardian could get your ministry into hot water. It’s always a good idea to inform parents ahead of time that you plan to take photos during an event or activity. Ask parents to submit a signed photo use agreement or “do not photograph” form before the activity, so your ministry team knows which photos they have permission to post. The form should note whether the agreement applies to a one-time event or an ongoing activity, such as the June 1-5 session of vacation Bible school. Until a youth is 18, a parent or legal guardian should sign these forms.

Children in foster care require special consideration. Foster children are wards of the state, so foster parents cannot legally sign documents on their behalf. Ministries would likely need a signed photo use agreement from a foster child’s caseworker. When in doubt, give a higher level of privacy to foster children. Often, they have been removed from their birthparents’ homes due to abuse or neglect. In some cases, broadcasting a child’s whereabouts could put the child at risk of being placed an unsafe situation.

Ask foster parents and others with privacy concerns to submit a “do not photograph” form. Keep an updated “do not photograph” list and share it with all staff and volunteers who might take pictures during ministry activities. Remind ministry workers to review the list before posting any photos online, even if they’re posting to a social media page considered to be personal, closed, or private. Privacy settings change over time, and information once considered private can be shared inadvertently.

If you don’t have such a form, ask your local school district to provide a sample document that you could tailor to your ministry’s needs. Be sure to have a locally licensed attorney review and approve it.

Worship Service Video

There are several portions of worship services that could lead to increased liability when recorded and broadcast:

  • Playing copyrighted music and video clips. In most cases, ministries can legally play copyrighted music for an in-person audience, but broadcasting this music generally requires additional permissions. Permission can be obtained directly from the composer/performers, or from organizations like Christian Copyright Licensing International. This group offers a special Church Streaming and Podcast License that should address most of the issues ministries face in this area.
  • Sharing prayer requests. Some people may request prayer during a worship service, but they may not want their personal information broadcast to a worldwide audience as part of joys, concerns, and prayer requests. Unless prior written consent is received from everyone being prayed for publicly by name, it’s best to delete the prayer section of the service from the broadcast.
  • Displaying crowd shots. Showing glimpses of the crowd is generally acceptable as long as people aren’t individually identified. As a courtesy, it’s a good idea to advise the congregation at the beginning of the worship service that it is being recorded for future posting on the Internet. Consider posting signs at the entrances so everyone is aware of the situation.

Original sermons generally can be posted with no legal issues, as long as the speaker authored the sermon within the scope of employment with the ministry. If the sermon was written by someone other than the presenter, such as one borrowed from a collection of sermons found online, obtain written permission from the work’s author or owner to broadcast the sermon. Some exceptions apply for older sermons that are considered part of the public domain. The laws in this area are complicated, so it’s best to ask an attorney for help to make sure no copyright laws are broken.

Photos of Guest Speakers and Well-Known Figures

You’ve invited a guest speaker to an event at your church and you want to promote their presence, or you want to note on your website that a well-known religious leader endorses your ministry. Can you use the guest speaker’s or well-known leader’s photo?

The best practice is to obtain written consent from the individual outlining how his or her name or image will be used and expressing that it is for promotional purposes. The law of privacy allows a person to seek legal protections from the use of his or her name or image by another person or organization. It’s best to be careful in this instance, especially with the development of ‘publicity rights’ of celebrities and other influential people now taking shape.

Member Directory Photos

Have each member sign a form acknowledging that their image and personal information—such as name, address, and phone number—will be used in the directory. The form should allow members the option of withholding or protecting some or all of their information.

In the case of online directories, ministries should refrain from posting any identifying information (home addresses, phone numbers, and other contact information) on public, non-password protected websites. Online directories should be password protected to ensure that identifying information is restricted to members of the congregation.

Download our Photo Use Agreement