Copyright and Church Music / Arts

When a person creates something (poem, hymn, tune, painting, photograph, sculpture, dance-steps, set of PowerPoint slides), the law in most countries says that, for an initial time period, the "rights" to the item belong to the person who created it - or to the person who paid for it if the artist was an employee at the time.

What these "rights" are, and how long they last depends on the country and the type of item.  But usually they include:
  • Making or selling copies (on paper, or video, or computer, or any other format) 
  • Performing the work in public, 
  • Broadcasting it, 
  • Selling or giving away copies of performances (even a "home made" DVD of a performance),
  • Sharing performances on the internet (including live-streaming and hosted recordings) 

Usually after the time period is over the item becomes "public domain" and other people are free to use it.

In most countries, the laws say that other people cannot make a copy, or adaptation, of a "creation", unless they get permission from the person who created it - or from the person or organisation that the original creator has assigned the rights to.

Often permission to use someone's creation is granted as a licence which is purchased from the creator, or from a third party (eg a publisher) who the creator has sold their rights to.

There are some exceptions:
  • In many countries the law says that any song or tune can be performed in a church a during a worship service
  • Fair-use provisions let individual people make photocopies of small parts of books (etc) for their private use.   

But the details of these exceptions vary from country to country, and technology is changing so fast that laws are struggling to keep up (eg is it ok for a private individual to record a song in a church service on a mobile phone, and then to show it to his friends at school?)

The bottom line for churches

Copyright laws are complex, and affect church music and worship arts in various ways.

Many books have been written about these laws, whether or not they are fair, what the implications are and how to get around them.  But at the end of the day:
  • Copyright law exists:  it's a civil law, just like taxes, fire safety and speed limits.
  • If you break the law, you might get caught.  
  • If you get caught you and your church may get punished.  Usually the punishment is a fine.
  • Almost no one thinks it's good stewardship to spend money on paying fines. 
  • Even if you don't get caught, your actions may have other consequences, eg discouraging composers from publishing new songs that they don't get rewarded for.

How to stay legal

One way for a church to follow copyright law is to contact the copy-right owner for every item that you want to use, and get permission to use it.   However this is very time-consuming - and music-publishers don't actually want to ideal individually with hundreds of thousand of churches.

A better option is to use of one (or more) Church Copyright Organisations (CCO's).  These companies negotiate with song-writer and publishers, and sell licenses that make it easier for churches to follow the law.  Once you have appropriate licence(s), staying legal is easy, and  you only need to contact copyright owners directly about a very small proportion of the works that you use. 

Also, there are some "alternative" licensing schemes that make it possible for people who create things to share (limited) rights to them with a minimum of fuss.  As people get to know about these, we may see artists, hymn-writers, composers etc who choose to make some works available in this way, and make their living from the "value add" services that they provide.
Case study has many templates and PowerPoint slides of prayers, and lists many hymns. The words of many of these are now public domain (the rights have expired, so no one can use them), but not the copyright for the layout, ie the arrangement of the contents on the slide-sets. But there is Creative Commons licencing on the entire site (see the bottom left hand side of this page) and on every individual downloadable file, so that everyone else knows they are free to use anything for non-commercial purposes.

A final possibility is to run your music and arts programme using only public domain materials.   There are some big disadvantages to this.  But is is an option for a church that is short of money, and it may be particularly important for artworks, which many churches are not used to paying for at all.

Where to get more information

Many government offer general copyright advice on to the internet and to their citizens by phone etc - google your country and an appropriate organisation to find out about this.

Some local church organisations have produced copyright guidelines which reflect the law and practices in their country/church.    These include:
  • A copyright guide based on English law, produced by the Church of England.
  • A copyright training programme, produced by the United Methodist church in the USA - note that American copyright law is different to the law in other countries in some quite specific ways:  sometimes materials can be still copyright in the US, but not copyright elsewhere.

There are lots of websites and organisations that give advice about copyright. Some of this advice is good, some isn't so good. You do need to be careful to do research and use trusted sources - and make sure that the answers that you get apply to your country.

Advice on,  is general only:  
For legal advice, consult a lawyer who is familiar with the laws in your country

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