Worshiping—or stealing?

Copyright infringement can carry a number of penalties ranging from monetary damages to prison terms. Are you guilty?

Jennifer Gray Woods, JD, is associate general counsel for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

In every worship service, some congregations around the globe regularly engage in breaking the eighth commandment. No church leadership would outright ask their members to steal CDs or books to use during worship services; yet every time lyrics are projected on a screen so that the congregation can sing along, or pictures or videos found online are used as an illustration during a sermon, or when a church program that includes music is streamed online without permission from the copyright holder or owner, the Church could very well be engaged in copyright infringement. Copyright infringement can carry a number of penalties ranging from monetary dam-ages to prison terms. Are you guilty?

Copyright is a form of intellectual property that applies to creative works that are fixed in a tangible form of expression. Examples of creative works are music, lyrics, photographs, drawings, videos, and other artistic works. Copyright gives the creators of these works the exclusive right to determine whether and how their works are used. During the life of a copyright, copyright owners have the following rights to their works:

  • To reproduce their work, such as in printed publications or by creating sound recordings of their work.
  • To distribute copies of their work.
  • To display their work
  • To publicly perform and broadcast their work
  • To make adaptations of their work, such as turning a book or manuscript into a movie or making a new arrangement of a song

Without permission, it is illegal to do any of the above-mentioned actions with copyrighted material.

Copyrights last for a fixed period of time, and once copyright expires, the work enters the public domain, meaning anyone can then use the work. It is not always easy to determine when a work has entered the public domain. In the United States, for example, at the present time, works that were created prior to 1923 are considered to be in the public domain, but works from 1923 onward may still be copyright protected. Other countries have different rules, so individuals are reminded to check the laws in their local jurisdiction.

Using material for religious or non-profit purposes is not a justification to infringe on someone’s copyright. Churches can be, and are, sued for copyright infringement. Therefore, it is important for church leaders to be aware of and observe copyright regulations.

When it comes to music, people sometimes believe that they can project lyrics for congregational singing, they can stream the musical portions of their worship services online, or music in the church hymnal or other songbooks is free to use in any way a church sees fit.

The truth, however, is much more complicated. For example, under United States law, there is a specific legislative exemption that allows music to be performed during religious services without additional permissions from the copyright holder. While this exemption allows churches to engage in congregational singing and special music without having to get permission from the copyright holder, it does not extend to printing or projecting lyrics or to streaming musical performances. Churches that wish to engage in these activities will need to get specific per-mission or authorization either from the copyright holder of the copyrighted work or through a licensing organization that grants blanket rights for any song within the organization’s repository.* Likewise, permission will be needed for many songs that are in the hymnal because many of these songs are still copyright protected.

Many believe that images found online (using search engines such as Google or Yahoo) are free to use. Additionally, people sometimes assume that if the materials do not have the copyright (©) symbol, they are in the public domain. Both assumptions are incorrect. If you find material online, the assumption should be that it is copyright protected unless you find evidence that it is not. As a best practice, if you would like to use graphics and photos in sermons, presentations, bulletin inserts, or announcements, use material that you have permission to use. Use images labeled as free stock photos and images that are under a creative commons license. In both cases, it is still important to read and follow the terms and conditions for use.

While copyright law can sometimes feel burdensome to churches who are looking to use content to expand and enhance their ministry, we must always remember that using a copyrighted work without permission is stealing. “Thou shall not steal” (Exod. 20:15, KJV).

* Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) and Christian Copyright Solutions (CCS) are two organizations that offer music licenses specifically for churches.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus

Jennifer Gray Woods, JD, is associate general counsel for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

January 2019

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Foundations of preaching

The credibility of preaching rests upon soul-searching theology and its life-changing impact.

Our "unfair" God

Away with pastoral bitterness and ministerial jealousy, and receive a fresh outpouring of grace.

The superhuman pastor*

Stress can be harmful, but it can also be manageable. You can succumb, or overcome.

David the Great: Deconstructing the man after God’s own heart1

As we review Old Testament history, Is it time to replace old lenses with new ones?

Finding God in Community

If you are not a part of community, you miss out on many ways God interacts with you.

Paid in Full

At that moment, I chose to give up on the money and spend more than two hours in prayer and Bible study.

Finding the Invisible God

In retirement, a lifelong preacher and trainer of preachers offers a simple sermon of faith and assurance for ministers and those to whom they minister.

Letters to the Editors

Our reader's weigh in on recent articles.

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - Southern Adv Univ 180x150 - Animated

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - NAD Stewardship (160x600)