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What Churches Need to Know About Copyright Rules

Churches’ intellectual property – original songs, sermons, books, and curriculum – is subject to copyright rules. Any written form of an idea applies, even an email message. Informal copyright happens through personal documentation (when the author dates and put a copyright logo on the document). Copyrights can also be easily registered online for only $35, which creates a public record and allows the church or individual to seek damages if material is used without permission. Churches may be hearing more about copyright, due to podcasts and availability of information on the Internet.

Define ownership in writing

Creativity is expected and encouraged in a church. However, it is best to clarify in writing whether or the church or the employee owns the copyright to original material. Under the work made for hire doctrine, if an individual creates material within the scope of work, the employer owns the copyright. In general, sermons written by pastors and songs written by musicians employed by the church are owned by the church. Churches should also be prepared for the following:

  • Create a written contract if the church wants to grant rights to employees to override the work for hire doctrine.
  • Define rights for work developed by independent contractors and volunteers.
  • Decide ownership and write a contract for books written by employees that are not directly related to the employee’s job description.

A board policy is not enough, but the board needs to be involved. Any ownership granted in a written contract affects total compensation. It’s best to sort out feelings about compensation issues before an employee begins to profit from privately copyrighted material.

Avoid penalties

Ignorance of copyright rules is not an excuse. Fines for copyright infringement are significant even for an unknowing violation, and up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for known violations. Such stiff fines make it a good idea for churches to educate employees, independent contractors, and volunteers on copyright rules. Examples of the most common infringements are: making copies of choral or sheet music, using non-religious music in a worship service, not purchasing software licenses for each computer, and using “free” photos off the Internet (violates copyright if shared in course of business).

To avoid infringement, churches must purchase licenses for use of material. Licenses define use limits, so churches need to pay attention to what is acceptable. For example, a song may be sung in worship service but can’t broadcast, so must be cut out of the video or podcast shared online. There are exceptions that allow for the use of copyrighted material without a license, which include: 1) public domain, 2) religious music exception, 3) fair use (such as a brief video clip for a sermon or news), and 4) nonprofit public performance (no one is paid to perform). However, some video licenses only allow for the full video to be shown, not a specific clip.

When in doubt, it’s a good idea for churches to seek legal advice if a copyright issue is unclear. Professional legal advice is also helpful when writing contracts with employees that address intellectual property.

Salmon Sims Thomas blog and monthly articles are made available for educational purposes only as well as to give you general information and a general understanding of the law not to provide legal advice.