Churches and Copyright

January 21, 2009 by

Admittedly, churches struggle with copyright concerns. We had the church-NFL debacle awhile back, and a search for “copyright” yields a small book worth of information.

We contacted a few people to set some of the issues straight where churches were concerned about copyright, and Brian Flagler was one of the first to respond. He let us know that he had a podcast coming up soon with the North Point Music Blog about copyright concerns.

So make sure you check it out, it’s a 15-minute Q&A that will give you some great information on copyright laws as they pertain to your church.

If you don’t listen, and you end up getting sued for using a song without permission in your services, we will publicly announce that your church marketing sucks.

Post By:

Joshua Cody

Josh Cody served as our associate editor for several years before moving on to bigger things. Like Texas. These days he lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, and you can find him online or on Twitter when he's not wrestling code.
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20 Responses to “Churches and Copyright”

  • Lance Leonard
    January 21, 2009

    One of the best resources I’ve found is the Copyright Queen Blog:

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  • myles
    January 21, 2009

    what if we listen and still get sued?
    will you publicly announce that we suck?
    will you even check?
    if we dont listen and get sued, will you forgive us? will you understand it might have been an honest mistake?
    please dont judge me harshly bro!

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  • Peter Lowe
    January 21, 2009

    I have to admit, I have higher standards for this website then publishing names of those who get sued. I’d rather see how we can not suck, then dwell on those who already have enough problems on their hands by being sued.
    I would hope that this website would strive for more then simply rubbing it in.

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  • Joshua
    January 21, 2009

    Haha, that was nothing more than a half-joking threat. If something made the news, we would talk about it, not as a way to embarrass anyone, but as a way to steer other churches away from this mishap. Don’t worry guys, you won’t be in trouble.

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  • Cameron
    January 22, 2009

    I always have a giggle at the way churches get so hung up on copyright. I have no problem with people being able to make a fair dollar for their fair work, but hoarding the things God has given us to share seems somehow… wrong.
    I always wonder what would have happened if the early church took the same approach as we now have to. Would Paul’s letters have got the circulation they did? And the first few verses of Luke would have been gold for IP lawyers!

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  • Cameron Smith
    January 22, 2009

    I don’t think this post was speaking to churches hoarding their work… I think it was more intended to focus on churches who break copyright laws by using commercial logos and graphics without proper permission from the appropriate channels or original creators of the artwork.
    In my opinion, there is a great lack of integrity in churches when it comes to this issue. We often tend to try justify our actions and explain away our wrong doings… Bottom line is, if it’s illegal, and you do it anyway.. you lack integrity. :)

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  • seanPdesign
    January 23, 2009

    I always have a giggle at how churches justify taking food out of an artists mouth by using guilt and the bible as a way to justify their theft.
    After all Jesus came to change the law right?
    Oh wait. . . no he didn’t, He came to fulfill it.
    Read the Old Testament. Especially Leviticus. You might even want to read the Talmud while your at it. Gain some perspective instead of trying to preach your uninformed view of the gospel. Paul was a Jew, he obeyed the law, believed in the Law, and taught by the law.

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  • seanPdesign
    January 23, 2009

    I have to say I am glad to see this site tackling copyright issues.
    I still think the structure of the site limits your ability to educate, but awesome job at tackling this topic. I hope you are able to reach many with this simple, yet poignant thread.

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  • Bruce Rothwell
    January 23, 2009

    Regarding “the way churches get so hung up on copyright.”… it’s not the churches that are getting hung up. The churches that are trying to do the legal thing are just trying to do what is right, legally – as we all should be. Christians _should_ be the most law-abiding citzens on the planet. I know some people think that just because the product (a song) is not “tangible”, that the effort to create said product does not warrant payment… but that is not true. What warrants payment is driven by the demand for the product. If the song was never written by the author, the artist/musicians/studio would never record it, and the label/publisher would never release it to the market for people to purchase and enjoy. Now, which one of those people or groups should be left out of getting paid? I opine that none should be left out. The smae analogy could be applied to the process of developing a software product… does anyone think the programmer should be expected to not get paid? Sure, some programmers enjoy authoring software for free… more power to them. And some songwriters do the same. But why should they be _expected_ by the consuming public to work for free? They shouldn’t. And those that expect them to work for free ought to be expected to go into work on Monday and tell their boss they are fine with continuing their employment sans a paycheck.

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  • seanPdesign
    January 23, 2009

    Ahhhhh, sense derived from one of my people.
    Amen Bruce. Amen. Thank you and shalom.

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  • Joshua
    January 24, 2009

    Thanks Sean, and we’ve got more coming soon. I know you’re passionate and knowledgeable about this, so stay in the discussion.

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  • Conrad Walton
    January 25, 2009

    I once told a pastor that the song they wanted me to put in a video for the Sunday service was copyrighted and we shouldn’t use it.
    They said that it was OK because we were non-profit.
    Ummm… No.
    We need more education about what the law actually says. I think people WANT to do the right thing, but they don’t always know what it is.
    (Did you read the story in Matthew about Jesus and the IP Lawyers?)

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  • Cameron
    January 26, 2009

    My point wasn’t that churches should be comfortable with freeloading. I agree that Christians should, in general, obey the law of the land. My problem is the way we accept modern copyright law as if it were the gospel.
    I agree that a lot of the problem is educational—we simply don’t understand what is acceptable and what isn’t. There is a lot of misinformation around, and on both sides of the argument. Conrad’s example, for instance, doesn’t tell us if the song for the video had a license that specifically allows reuse by non-commercial entities. For sure, unless you know it does you should assume it doesn’t. But such things aren’t that rare, either. I’ve seen people refuse to use such material, ‘just in case.’
    I also agree that workers should be able to have an opportunity to make a living off their work. Yet I think different types of work might need different approaches.
    For example, as a preacher I spend a lot of time writing sermons. I don’t make money off it directly, but I am expected to do it as part of my appointment.
    Now, if someone were to smuggle in a video camera one Sunday morning and put the video up on YouTube I’d be amused.
    If I heard that it had been shown at a church that couldn’t afford a pastor, I’d be stoked. And if I found out that Rick Warren had been bumped from Saddleback one Sunday because they wanted to show my video, I’d be honoured (not to mention a few other things!).
    What I feel ripped off? Of course not. Yet in each case copyright law has been ignored.
    I can also see that if I worked for hours on a logo and web page for a church, and I found the same thing had been wholesale copied by another church, I’d be cheesed off.
    What is the difference between them?
    I’m not sure. I don’t really think the answer lies in complicating copyright law further. I do think Christians should try to be as liberal as they can in their licensing without jeopardising what they do or the people they serve.

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  • SeanPdesign
    January 26, 2009

    And there is your problem right there. You base your entire, and I mean entire argument based off of your perception.
    You are a pastor, you have a base salary that you take from your parish.
    I am an artist, I get paid squat by my church, and when I do make some freelance cash, its a job to job basis. I cover the bills with what my church pays me, and I eat off what I make for freelance.
    Do I complain? Nope, people will rarely ever hear me complain about what I make. UNtil someone steals from me.
    My art, my intellectual property is my livelihood. Period. Its my trade, as much as a plumber, a construction work, a handyman, or an electrician. Its my skill, that I use to provide.
    Do you call a plumber for a leaky faucet and expect not to have to pay him? No. So why do you steal from an artist?
    Because you freely give and can afford to do not assume that the next guy can. Thats just being self centered and narcissistic.
    Time and time again I hear pastors brag about how they give away their sermons. Well did you stop to think that if it was worth something people would actually pay for it like they do for Rick Warren, Jack Hayford, Joel Olsteen, and other well known pastors?
    So the difference is that unless the artist offered the work, then you CANNOT use it. PERIOD. Thus using it it would be stealing and any, and I mean ANY form of excuse biblical or otherwise is just a manipulation of the victim and further injury to insult.
    Just because an artist did something for God does not make it yours, just as I surrender my life, possessions, and loved ones to God doesn’t make them yours either.
    Ignorance is NEVER an excuse. When in doubt always error on the side of caution. And for once, put yourself in the other guys shoes, last time I checked the Sun was the center of the universe, Christ was the Savior, and God was the father, not you.

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  • Cameron Horsburgh
    January 27, 2009

    SeanPdesign, I agree that artists should have the right to try to make a living off their work, just like a plumber has the right to try to make a living off plumbing.
    Let me say, though, that artists have no right to make money—at least, any more than plumbers do. They certainly have the right to try, though.
    Now, as I said before, Christians should obey the law and churches shouldn’t think they have the right to freeload.
    I think, however, we need to be more creative in finding ways to share what we have produced whilst still making sure people can feed their families, etc. My experience is that most churches don’t actually mind paying—the problem is convenience. If you want to print the words to a song on a song sheet it always used to be very hard to get appropriate permission. If the song is covered by a CCLI licence it is now very easy to do.
    Personally, I like to use Creative Commons licences on the works I produce, although the copyright (and certainly the royalties) of any work I do is owned by my church. I also look for works that are similarly licensed to use on Sunday. Again, it’s a matter of convenience and not having to sit down and try to figure out exactly what I’m allowed to do with it.
    This works better in some industries than in others too—Scott Sigler, Corey Doctorow and John Buckman are all examples of people who have made a motza by using very liberal licences on their works.
    Graphic designers, on the other hand, cannot work this way. As you say, they are more like the plumber.
    Now, just because an artist does something for God doesn’t mean they should give the fruit of that away. If I sounded like I meant that, I didn’t. God gives farmers crops, but that doesn’t mean they should give them away.
    Preaching is a different thing again. It’s not wrong for preachers to be able to make a living at what they do. Yet most preachers would want their message proclaimed as widely as possible. In my church we have people scribbling notes during the sermon. Others ask for my preaching notes. If anyone brings a camera or recorder along, all the better. I wouldn’t dream of asking people to pay me before they can hear what I have to say, and I certainly wouldn’t want to stop them getting copies to listen to later, or show to their friends.
    If we were to professionally video the whole thing, we might have to charge a fee to cover production costs, although that would be a last resort.
    My thinking on this particular matter became very clear a few weeks ago when some friends paid $150 each to go to a seminar conducted by some Very Big Name Preachers. If I’d known it was on, I might have gone myself. When they got there, however, they found out the preachers weren’t coming—it was all on DVD and they’d be watching a screen instead. When they asked if they could buy a copy of the DVD, they couldn’t—watching the DVD cost $150.
    It was great teaching, but restricting your teaching to people simply on the basis of ability to pay seems wrong, especially when the subject matter was billed as ‘information every aspiring leader needs to know!’

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  • Frank Ramage
    January 31, 2009

    I’m actually defending a thorn in my side here…
    >> I agree that Christians should, in general, obey the law of the land. My problem is the way we accept modern copyright law as if it were the gospel.
    I’m confused. Should we obey the copyright law or not? How do I determine what law to obey?
    >> I always wonder what would have happened if the early church took the same approach [to copyright issues] as we now have to.
    It wouldn’t have mattered. The intent of the authors was for the use of “their” work in the Christian church. With a copyright in effect, they could have “protected” their work from being mangled, sold or misattributed.
    I think it’s important to keep the fairness of the current copyright law separate from the fact that it is the law of the land. Unless we change it.

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  • GorrillaMcdouglas
    February 24, 2009

    @Cameron: Just to clarify, the difference between sharing sermons without permission and sharing logos without permission is that the logo loses some of its value and effectiveness when copied by multiple churhes. A sermon is about the word of God and shouldn’t lose it’s effectiveness no matter how many times it’s listened to.

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  • Erin Westfall
    January 12, 2011

    Cameron- I don’t undertand at all- artists don’t have the right to make money?

    “SeanPdesign, I agree that artists should have the right to try to make a living off their work, just like a plumber has the right to try to make a living off plumbing.
    Let me say, though, that artists have no right to make money—at least, any more than plumbers do. They certainly have the right to try, though.”

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  • Jonathan Santiago
    January 13, 2012

    I recently wrote a paper on the legal ramifications of church copyright issues. I chose this topic partially for a school project, but more importantly because I want my own church stays out of any legal trouble. I hope this may help someone.

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  • curious
    March 23, 2016

    What should a person do when they have tried to educate their pastor on copyright infringement issues but the pastor ignores their concerns, and continues to offer “movie night” and use any image off of google that suits their purpose? I see it as an integrity issue and I believe the leadership would rather turn a blind eye to it. Thoughts?

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