Copyright and the Church

Along with the FAQ below, please also review Copyright Compliance Basics for Churches.

Frequently Asked Questions:

The questions and answers presented here are for informational purposes.  It is always a good idea to contact the copyright holder directly or a copyright attorney if the answers provided here are not adequate for your situation.

“What is copyright?”

“Copyright” is the legal protection of a creative work.  Using a work without permission that is under copyright is against the law and penalties can be financially severe.  There is no exemption from copyright law for churches.  Creative works are protected for 95 years (if published before 1978), or the life of the creator of the work plus 70 years if published after January 1, 1978.  Remember, the work is the property of the person who created it.  To use it without permission is stealing.

“Where do I find copyright information?”

A good way to see who holds the copyright is to look for the notice at the bottom of the first page or in an index in the front or back of a collection.  Sometimes the copyright holder will assign an agent to manage the copyrighted work.  If no copyright is present, do not assume that the work is in the public domain until you do further research to locate a copyright owner.

“When is it necessary to seek permission to use a copyrighted work?”

The simple answer is: always.  Whenever a copyrighted work is reproduced in any form, permission must be obtained.  This applies to print, projection, recording, web-based uses (live streaming or services such as YouTube or Vimeo), and any other form, even those yet to be developed.   This applies to bulletins, song books, handouts, projections, recordings for shut-ins, an “extra” copy for the accompanist, videos of worship services and “special” services (such as musicals, children’s Christmas programs, etc.)—anytime you reproduce a copyrighted work you need to ask permission.

“Can I make a new arrangement of a copyrighted song?”

Copyright owners are generally eager for their work to be used.  If you want to make a new arrangement, contact the copyright owner for permission.  If you will be selling the arrangement, you will need to work with the copyright owner for proper licensing and the payment of royalties.

“I don’t have time to contact the copyright owner.”

For your own good, make time.  In the internet age it is relatively easy to locate contact information for anyone.  Major music publishers generally have a dedicated phone number or email for permissions.  If time is important, call.  Most publishers are so happy that you are seeking permission that they will gladly work with you.  If the copyright owner is not managed by a major publisher, try searching Facebook for contact information.  Often a composer will have a Facebook page and will respond to an email.

“We have lots of photocopies of choir music.  What should I do with them?”

Unless permission has been obtained, photocopied music is usually illegal.  One exception would be if a title was listed as “out of print” on a publisher’s website.  In that case, the publisher might grant permission to reproduce a song for a reduced fee and permission should be indicated on the reprints.  But, you must ask!  And, guess what, even if you didn’t photocopy the music yourself, if your church is in possession of illegal copies you could be charged with copyright infringement.

“What does it hurt to use copyrighted works illegally?”

Well, composers rely on royalties for their income.  Photocopying music or otherwise reproducing the music denies the royalty and is, again, stealing.  Publishers rely on sales.  They cannot produce future resources without the money generated by the sale of their resources.  This is especially true of more modest publishers like The Pilgrim Press.

“Do I need permission to ‘perform’ music in a worship service?”

No.  You don’t need permission to perform music in worship.  This is specifically allowed in copyright law.  But, if you are performing music in a concert setting you would need permission.  (For church musicals and anthems, check the copyright page of the work.  Often permission is granted for performance with the appropriate copyright notice printed or displayed.)

“My church makes audio/video recordings of worship for shut-ins.  Must I obtain permission?”

Unfortunately the answer is yes.  Many churches violate copyright law when they record their worship services and provide copies to members, visitors, shut-ins, etc.  If you do not have permission, you are in violation of copyright law and you are exposing your church to potentially large fines.

“My church produces instant DVDs of worship.  We need permission, right?”

Yes, churches producing “instant DVDs” of their worship services and handing them out within a few moments of the end of worship need to obtain permission for each copyrighted work included.  This not only applies to songs, but copyrighted readings, film clips, etc.  It does not matter if you sell them or give them away.

“What is a mechanical license?”

You will need to obtain a mechanical license if you wish to record a copyrighted work.  A fee, set by law, is charged for each recording that is made.  The current mechanical license fee is 9.1 cents per song or 1.75 cents per minute, whichever is greater.  This rate applies to “records” and “downloads.”

“What license do I need to web-stream our worship service?”

You will need to contact each copyright owner to secure permission.  Each copyright owner and publisher deals with it a little differently.  (Web-streaming licenses are available.  See licensing companies listed below.)

“I see songs, worship services, and stuff posted on YouTube all the time.  I’m sure that they didn’t ask for permission.  Why can’t I do the same?”

There is nothing preventing you for breaking the law.  Still, any copyright owner is free to seek damages if he/she finds his/her work being used illegally.

“I think the song that I want to use is Public Domain.  How can I be sure?”

While the lack of a copyright notice can indicate that a song is in the public domain, it is a good idea to check.  Generally music published in the United States before 1922 is in the public domain.  (But, be careful, someone can make a new arrangement of it and claim a copyright to it!)

“My friend said that as long as I claim ‘fair use’ I will be protected by copyright law.”

Nice try!  “Fair use” does not generally apply to churches.  It is intended more for those who wish to reprint a single copy of a copyrighted work or portion of it for comment, scholarship, teaching, etc.   You cannot claim “fair use” for the performance, duplication, or recording of a copyrighted work.

“I want to help my choir learn their part in the music, so I’m making recordings of each part.  Do I need permission?”

Yes.  Many choral anthems are now being published with optional rehearsal recordings available.  You can purchase these and pay the appropriate fee based on the number of recordings made.

“What music licensing companies are available to churches and which one should I use?” 

Most music copyrighted by The Pilgrim Press is handled by  From their website: “Using OneLicense gives you access to the congregational hymns, songs and service music of today’s top church music publishers—all for one yearly fee!  Our list of publisher members is growing and as new publishers become members, you will immediately have access to their catalogs so long as your license is in force.

The cost of a OneLicense is equitably and fairly based upon the average weekly attendance of your congregation.  The yearly cost ranges from $50.00 per year for average weekly attendance of 25 members to $800.00 annually for average weekly attendance of 20,000 members or more.  Single use licenses range from $25 to $60, and event licenses begin at $35 and extend up to $275 for a really large convention.”

OneLicense also provides for Podcast licensing which will solve the problem of seeking individual permissions for each song used in a worship service.  You will need to check each song to make sure that it is covered by the Podcast license, however.

Remember, the only way that the copyright holder gets paid when you use a license is for you to report the usage of the song to the licensing company.  Please report your song usage as required by your license.

CCLI offer copyright licensing, rehearsal licensing, church streaming and podcast licensing, church video licensing, ScreenVue (for using movie clips during worship), and SongSelect.  See their website for more information.  Before signing up, make sure you check which songs you want to use to be sure that they are covered by CCLI.

Remember, the only way that the copyright holder gets paid when you use a license is for you to report the usage of the song to the licensing company.  Please report your song usage as required by your license.

LicenSingOnline offers single use, weekly use, or annual licenses.  Again, before signing up make sure that the songs you use are covered.  LicenSingOnline will soon begin offering a scripture and prayer resources, and image service.

Remember, the only way that the copyright holder gets paid when you use a license is for you to report the usage of the song to the licensing company.  Please report your song usage as required by your license. 

“My congregational uses The New Century Hymnal.  Because it was published by The Pilgrim Press does that mean I’m free to reprint the hymns?”

No.  But, good try!  Beginning on page 888 of The New Century Hymnal are the copyright listings.  These will direct you to the appropriate copyright holder.  Any copyright controlled by The Pilgrim Press and other UCC entities is licensed by  Many of the other copyright holders are administered by OneLicense as well.  You need to check the title you wish to use in the search box at the licensing company that you wish to use.

If a hymn number is not included in the copyright listing in The New Century Hymnal you can assume that is was believed to be in the public domain when the hymnal was printed.  You are free to reprint it without permission.

“We just purchased Sing! Prayer and Praise and want to reprint music and project words.  Is there a blanket permission to do this?”

No.  Since the songs that were selected came from many sources, and since about fifty percent never appeared in print before, permissions are a bit more complicated.  You will need to search for individual songs at each of the permission websites:,, and

There are a significant number of songs (the ones that never appeared in print before) that will not be covered by a licensing company.  We are working to get them covered through OneLicense.  In the meantime, you need to contact the copyright owner directly for permissions.

“My church uses backgrounds for projections.  I often find great pictures on the internet.  Am I free to use them?”

It all depends on where you found them.  Images, like other creative works, are protected by copyright.  Just because it is posted online does not mean that it is free from copyright.  If you cannot locate the copyright owner, do not use the image.  (The use of background images provides a good opportunity for members of the congregation to use their photography and design skills.  A “projection ministry” could be started to create images for worship use.)

“I want to use film clips to illustrate my sermon.  What should I do?”

Film clips are protected by copyright as well. licenses film clips.  You will need to use the clips that are available on their website, however.

Just a note: copyright permissions are a matter of justice.  Copyright owners rely on their royalty income to live, and publishers rely on the income to enable them to make a profit and to produce further resources.  To use a copyrighted work without permission is illegal, even if you don’t know that you’re breaking the law.  No church would think of bypassing the electric meter to avoid paying electrical costs, but many do a similar illegal activity when they reproduce (without permission) CDs, DVDs, videos, choir music, music from song books and hymnals, and the like.  The more you engage in obtaining permissions, the easier it will become.