Advanced Topics in Copyright for Local Churches:  Linking and Embedding

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that much of the content available on the internet is protected under the U.S. Copyright Act.  That means a church cannot upload or copy and paste written works, artwork, photographs, or music to its website, blog, paper or e-newsletter, or social media pages (“socials”) without the copyright owner’s permission.  These practices create copies of works and distribute them without the owner’s permission in violation of the U.S. Copyright Act.  If you have questions about copyright law basics, see Copyright Compliance Basics for Local Churches, and Volunteers and Copyright:  Best Practices.  In this article, we are sharing best practices for two common ways that Local Churches may share others’ works on their websites, socials, and other publications (sometimes collectively referred to as “websites” in this article for brevity).  Many thanks to my paralegal, Cynthia Gaffney, who assisted with the legal research for this post.


Can my church use links on our website to direct our viewers to content created by others?

Yes.  Linking is the practice of placing a hyperlink on your website that leads to an another website.  If your church wants its website viewers to access others’ works and you do not have the copyright owner’s permission to upload or copy the content onto your website, the best practice is to place a link on your church’s website to the copyright owner’s website that has the information you are seeking to share.  For example, if your church wants to share a story that appears on, instead of copying and pasting the text of story and uploading accompanying photographs directly to your website, you provide a hyperlink directly to the news story at its location on  Linking to the original source of the work is not a copyright violation, because the viewer views the content at its original source, and no copy is made on your church’s website or servers.  

Can my church use the “share” function on others’ socials to share content to our own socials?

Yes.  Using the “share” function on Facebook and Instagram, and similar functions on other socials, is the appropriate way to share others’ content.  Do not download or save photographs from social media sites and repost them on your church’s webpages or socials without permission, as that is a copyright violation.  Churches should follow best practices in sharing others’ photographs and personal content.  For more information, see Church Liability and Best Practices for Posting Photos and Videos.

My church wants to include a particular poem in our e-bulletin for Sunday worship.  We don’t have permission from the copyright owner to publish it directly in the bulletin, and we know we can’t reproduce it there directly.  But we found it published on the internet on someone else’s webpage.  Can we put a link to that page in our e-bulletin?

Be sure that you are linking to an original source or a source that the copyright owner’s permission to display the work.  If a website is displaying the text of the poem, but the website is not owned by the author or publisher, and does not indicate that it has a license to display the poem, then that website may be infringing on the owner’s copyright.  If your church links to the infringing website, it could be liable for contributory infringement.  Contributory infringement can also occur if your church posts links to study guides, hymns, sheet music, or other copyrighted works that others have posted to their websites without permission, especially if your church gives instructions on how to access or download these materials.

My church is doing a Bible study.  A particular theologian has written a study guide on the topic and posted it on their website with permission for churches to use it.  Can we link directly to a particular PDF in the study guide or should we link to their homepage?

Linking directly to a page within a website is called deep linking.  Deep linking is not copyright infringement.  But it is a best practice for transparency to avoid deep linking where it may cause confusion as to the source of the linked works.  If it is possible that some study group members may believe the church produced the study guide materials, the best practice would be to link to the theologian’s homepage with instructions for finding the materials.  This is different than the discussion above about the poem because the theologian has given permission to churches to use the materials.


We are doing an article for the church website and we want to provide an in-line link on our site to someone else’s photograph on their website.  Does this infringe the rights of the photograph owner?

In-line linking, or embedding, is placing a line of HTML (the computer language used for making webpages) on your website to display content directly from another site.  Embedding makes the content look like it is part of your website.  If you embed a photograph on your site, the website viewer does not have to click a link to view it— the photograph is visible on your page, even though you have not uploaded the photograph to your website and you are not storing it on your server.  Embedding does not make a copy of the work, and can be used for all types of content.

The question of whether embedding a work without permission is a copyright violation is a bit unsettled.  While the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held embedding is not a copyright violation because no copy is made of the work, a federal district court in the Second Circuit held that embedding violates the copyright owner’s right to display their work.  Because of this, churches that have a practice of embedding content without permission should be especially attentive to changes in the law in their jurisdiction, and should seek the advice of an attorney if faced with claims of copyright infringement for embedded content.

Always state the source and owner of the embedded content to avoid confusion as to the source of the content.  Churches using embedded content must be aware that the website hosting the embedded content could change or delete the content, leading to the display of unexpected content on the church’s website that may be irrelevant to the context, harmful, damaging, or defamatory.  These instances may not result in copyright claims but may damage the church’s reputation if the embedded content becomes inappropriate for the church’s website viewers. 

Summary of Best Practices in Sharing Others’ Content:

  • Do not copy and paste text or upload photographs, pdfs, music, or other copyrighted content to the church’s website without permission of the copyright owner.
  • Use hyperlinks to the copyright owner’s website to share copyrighted content, as a best practice.
  • Avoid hyperlinking to websites that post others’ content without permission.
  • Avoid deep linking where it may cause confusion as to the original source of the linked content.
  • Proceed with caution when choosing to embed content on the church’s website: state the source of the content and monitor the content for changes.

The information provided in this article is not legal advice.  If you need legal advice, please consult with an attorney.

Categories: General Counsel Blog

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