With many of your parish attending services and meetings online, your use of creative work such as music, videos, and imagery could be in violation of copyright laws. A copyright is the intellectual property right belonging to the creators of original creators. These laws cover everything that can be seen, heard, or touched so that the authors of these works have the exclusive right to:

  • Copy or print
  • Perform publicly
  • Sell or distribute
  • Revise or transform
  • Record

Infringing on copyright laws, even accidentally, can cause hefty fines. But by taking the right steps to ensure you are using these works with permission (usually by payment) or exist within the public domain, you can protect your church from unnecessary penalties. 

The basic guidance for literary, dramatic, artistic, or musical works is this copyright persists for around 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last remaining creator/author of that work dies. The UK Copyright Service created a helpful fact sheet that covers each type of creative publication and the exact expirations, as it varies.

Protect your church from copyright infringement when sharing your message online.Activities that may involve copyright infringement

There are quite a few areas where churches can be at risk of copyright infringement without taking the proper precautions. These common areas include:

  • Playing music. Although typically churches have had an exemption for some music played during worship services in the past for in-person Sunday Services, with the use of streaming online and recording of these services, you will now need to make sure you have permission to play or perform copyrighted music. Licencing services can help make sure the copies you use are within the law.
  • Sharing lyrics and sheet music. Even in person, Churches are required to have permission to distribute lyrics and sheet music. Use of hymnals is permissible, since you have purchased the use. But photocopies, including using these on a projector, violates copyright laws—if you are making direct copies of your hymnal, copyright information should be inside the hymnal. 
  • Poems, Prayers, or other passages. Like lyrics, you cannot print or display passages without the permission of the author, even in church newsletters. Even anonymous works may have copyright protection. 
  • Photos and graphics. Visual art is protected unless it is available in the public domain. If you are using stock photos there are several sites where you can get such images for free (we’ve listed a few at the end of this article). Other graphics you may see shared on social platforms are not necessarily licence free, and it is always a best practise to be sure you have permission to use or share an image in advance.
  • Playing videos or clips. Movies or even social media clips belong to the creator of the video. 
  • Scripture. This may come as a surprise, but most versions of the Bible are copyrighted. When copying and sharing Scripture , be sure to follow the publishing company’s copyright policies. Many Bible publishers have generous policies that allow for quoting if the source is properly cited – the Church of England has summarised how to do this for many versions. 

Some churches are choosing to limit the online broadcasts of their Sunday services to strictly the original sermon, omitting the use of non-copyrighted content. But there are ways to gain permission for licences and open up your offerings to your online audience. 

How social media platforms detect copyright infringement

Streaming platforms are mining video data using artificial intelligence to ensure copyright compliance on their sites. If a site detects copyright infringement, they may block or take your content down. 

  • YouTube: You will receive a warning from the platform, called a copyright strike. YouTube has a three strikes policy, which will affect your ability to collect donations or produce new content. If you get a strike you can submit a counter notification to get the strike removed. 
  • Facebook and Instagram may send you a warning message or mute your content if they detect copyright infringement. You can dispute these claims directly through your account. 
  • Twitter does not use any algorithm to detect infringement at this stage, but other users can report copyright infringement. 

YouTube uses AI to detect for possible copyright infringement

Get the rights to use copyrighted works

There are a few avenues for obtaining the permission to use copyrighted works, including reaching out to the original creator. A resource is the Copyright Licensing Agency, which allows you to search permissions and purchase licence especially for print and digital publications. 

For music and video, you can use a service to buy a blanket licence. A blanket licence charges a subscription fee, and this can be an annual or monthly charge depending on the provider. 

  • Christian Copyright Licencing International: CCLI provides copyright licencing to music and video and facilities real-time access to this material. With a CCLI licence you can share, print, and display the lyrics and music, covering both the audio and visual requirements as well as movies and video clips. There are different subscription levels based on your need. 
  • Christian Copyright Solutions: CCS has a variety of options for licencing copyrighted church music for an annual fee that varies based on your church size. 
  • Christian Video Licencing International: A CVLI licence provides coverage for churches and other ministry organisations to show motion pictures and other audiovisual programmes, including clips of these programmes. This does not cover the right to charge an admission fee if you do movie nights, for instance, as a fundraiser. 
  • Performing Right Society: PRS strives to protect the value of music by licensing, collecting royalties for their contributors and members. 

Find creative works in the public domain for licence-free use

Some works are freely available—either because their copyright has expired or the artist freely shares the work and it is considered part of the “public domain.” A good starting point is through Creative Commons licences, under which artists’ work is more freely shareable, or is sharable with certain restrictions (such as giving credit). Here are a few other options:

  • Wikimedia Commons which has a growing list of freely usable, searchable media files (over 63 million as of this publication).
  • Free Images has both free and subscription-based imagery for stock photography
  • Icon Finder has a database of iconography and graphic imagery in vector
  • YouTube has a library of free audio files, mostly soundbites or clips

Playing music for your online church services.Quick dos and don’ts to follow copyright laws

You should always investigate the copyright status of any literary, musical, dramatic, or audiovisual works before using them. Giving credit to the creator of copyrighted works is not enough to protect your church from rules against infringement. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.

DO

  • Perform a thorough search of content you’ve used in the past and remove any you think may be in violation. 
  • Review the content you are preparing to ensure you have the current rights for the version you want to use before you do it. Give yourself time as part of your daily or weekly strategy.
  • Create your own content. When possible, take photos or design your own digital elements.
  • Be cautious with quotes. Quoting and attributing your source does not absolve you. Long quotes can be especially problematic. You can’t just put quotes around an entire work and call it a day.

DON’T

  • Ignore the rules. Even if you think no one will notice or you are too small, artificial intelligence and web-crawlers look for unauthorised use. 
  • Mistake old or “classic” as free to use. Copyrights can be placed on various elements of your media. For instance, you could come across a modified version that has a modern copyright.
  • Assume widely shared content is free. Just because others use something doesn’t mean it is free to use—especially with images and clips on the internet and social media. 

This is just a summary or some of the copyright issues you might run into and should not be considered the ultimate word on licensing. Reaching out to sites like CCLI and PRS can be useful in understanding the best steps forward for your church.