Yes, Copyright Laws Do Apply to Churches (and Other Non-Profits)

copyright laws
William “Bill” C. Davell, Esq.

The Good News provides a monthly column with important content having to do with topics from the legal community. This month features a conversation with Stephanie Mazzola, a director at Tripp Scott.

Even given the growing media sophistication of people of all ages and walks of life, the assertion continues to be made: copyright laws don’t apply to churches.

But they do, so let’s examine the increasingly complex application of copyright laws in the church context.


Bill Davell: Why should our church worry about copyright laws?


Stephanie Mazzola: Christians more than anyone else should respect copyright laws. The Bible commands that “every person be subject to the governing authorities.” And the law says that the right to determine how, when, where and by whom just about any kind of created content is used belongs to its creator, or another “owner” (perhaps an employer or purchaser) for as long as that “owner” lives and decades beyond. 

Second, Christians believe that “the laborer is worthy of his reward.” People, in the church or outside, who work hard to write, publish, perform, record, create or produce poetry, prose, dramatic works, lyrics, music, graphics, images or video should be rewarded for their efforts and their value to us.


BD: But in fact, we’re not using materials to make money. Why should we pay to use them?


SM: The core principle under the law is not whether the user expects to make money out of a given use but whether the creator has a right to expect to.

With very limited exceptions, your church’s copying, performing, broadcasting or viewing any content producer’s materials without permission, compensated or otherwise, involves infringement of their rights, which can result in very large fines.

That’s true whether they’re used in worship, group activities, Sunday Schools or Bible studies, by the choir or praise team (even in rehearsal), and even special events like viewing parties or movie nights that have drawn special attention from rights holders (although, quite topically, the NFL has relaxed its rules about Super Bowl viewing parties under certain restrictions).


BD: Isn’t there a religious use exemption from copyright? What about other exemptions like “fair use?”


SM: The religious use exemption is extremely narrow: it allows churches to sing or display a musical or literary work in the course of worship only. It also doesn’t allow music or lyrics to be displayed on the screen. It’s basically designed for singing out of a hymnal, which most churches don’t do anymore, or performances of classic sacred music.

The Fair Use doctrine is also extremely limited: it’s intended primarily for critiques, parodies, news reporting and educational uses, and involves a complex four-part test that most experts agree is often not applicable in a church setting. Under Fair Use, it’s almost certainly okay to use a short quote from a work in a sermon or cite an article or a small part of a book in a Sunday School. It’s not ok to quote large sections of a work or play part of a video without permission in a sermon or copy a chapter of a book or an entire article for your class. 


BD: Why is avoiding copyright infringement more complex than before?


SM: Because so many different works are now used in different ways in different settings and over different channels. 

Different rights are involved in projecting words, in use of video material versus music, in livestreaming or recording music that you may have rights to, in creating your own arrangements of music (considered “derivative”) and even in using music you have rights to use outside of worship. All need separate “permissions.”


BD: So how does our church get permission to use music, videos, articles and the like in all of these varied ways?


SM: The most common means to obtain permissions are through licenses and through proper purchases of materials you intend to use as study or educational materials in classes, youth or children’s activities, Sunday Schools, Bible studies and the like. For example, don’t copy chapters from a popular study guide used in a Bible group, but require each member to purchase the book. You may need to purchase reprints of articles in magazines or newspapers, although it may be permissible to provide links to materials not behind firewalls.

Because of the many channels through which churches now distribute varied media content, it’s likely your church today will require multiple licenses. The leading licensing organizations for music, videos and the like are Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI), Christian Copyright Solutions (CCS), and OneLicense, all of which license various kinds of music. CCLI recently published an explanation of various rights covered by each of the groups’ various licenses.


BD: How can a church manage these complexities?


SM: In addition to some of the suggestions above, a wise step – as in many other areas of church life today – is to create a formal policy and set of procedures for handling intellectual property and designate a staff member or responsible lay leader to be in charge of its implementation.

A Tripp Scott practice team well-versed in intellectual property issues can help churches or other organizations sort through the many copyright and other rights issues faced today. Visit or call 954-525-7500 for more information.

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