Do Music Right: Three Myths about Copyright Law

July 11th, 2013
Did you know? An outdoor service like this needs a performance license.

Myth #1: “Churches are exempt from performance licensing.”

The recent July 4th holiday is always a good time to give thanks for the freedoms we enjoy in the United States. The First Amendment, which includes freedom of religion, is particularly precious in its guarantee that we can practice our faith without fear of persecution. But just as the First Amendment doesn’t cover everything a church might want to do (e.g. trespass into a farmer’s vineyard and trample his crop for freshly-squeezed Communion juice) the Religious Services Exemption to U.S. copyright law doesn’t cover every instance of musical performance a church might have.

The religious service exemption applies only to actual religious services. All other performances—the youth events, social gatherings, retreat sing-a-long, even the music played over the loudspeakers at fall festival—require a performance license. Unless the performance is in the context of services, churches have the same copyright responsibilities as a restaurant, business, or stadium, whether you’re singing live or just playing a recording for a group of people.

It might seem funny to call the background music played during your event or the on-hold music for the office phone a “performance,” but just because you’re not standing on a stage and charging admission doesn’t mean it’s not a performance. The legal definition, in this case, is: an instance of music being performed “in a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.”

Most uses of music in a church context fit those criteria, being open to the public and/or a substantial gathering beyond a nuclear family and its guests. (Churches may talk about themselves as a family, but the U.S. government doesn’t see it that way!) So when you seek to be a 7-days-a-week church, growing disciples through teaching and fellowship, and reaching out through community events, remember that freedom often comes with boundaries, and that is the case with church music performance.

Myth #2: “My CCLI license provides performance licenses.”

Do you ever grow increasingly uneasy the more times a chorus is repeated at the end of a worship song? You’re never quite sure if this is the last one or if it’s repeating another time or two? My home church uses a little symbol, a simplified version of the church’s logo, to indicate when the song is really, truly ending. I thought that was a brilliant idea, since otherwise, you have to rely on the worship leader’s sometimes-unreliable “one more time” warning or maybe the appearance of the song’s copyright and CCLI info, since those lines of tiny type are included on what is, presumably, the last slide of the song.

Unless you’re experienced with copyrights, your main familiarity with CCLI is probably in that lovely fine print at the bottom of the screen. But like the fine print on pharmaceutical ads or in a magazine’s masthead, we tend to just overlook it. Like many in the church, my guess was that CCLI gives the church the right to use the song in worship.

That’s true, to an extent, but what exactly does “use” mean, in this context? Not to parse language too much, but it actually makes a big difference—the difference between using music legally and illegally in your church.

The CCLI basic license is a reproduction license, covering the printing of copyrighted music and lyrics in bulletins or congregational songbooks, or projecting of them on screen, the CCLI license covers some very specific music uses, including the limited creation of custom arrangements for congregational singing, and limited recording of worship services onto CDs and DVDs. (For further detail of what is covered by the CCLI license, contact your CCLI representative.)

The CCLI license does not cover performance of copyrighted music. Performance of hymns and other songs in worship is covered by the Religious Service Exemption in U.S. Copyright Law. But that exemption doesn’t apply outside of a congregational worship service. Playing or performing copyrighted music during other events requires performance licensing. CCLI is a valuable resource, but don’t make the mistake of assuming it covers every way you use music in your church.

Myth #3: “My church does not perform music outside of services.”

If you read that last paragraph and think that means you’re off the hook—not so fast.

It’s a common mistake for church leaders to assume that any music they might be using is covered by the religious service exemption. When they learn that the exemption only applies to music performed in worship services, often their immediate response is, “We don’t play any music outside of services.”

Churches vary in their use of music outside of worship. At the church I grew up in, music was part of practically every gathering. Our youth group regularly had talent shows, sing-alongs, and concerts. The annual craft bazaar wouldn’t have been complete without Christmas music playing in the background, and my fellow voice students and I had our recitals in the sanctuary. Contrast that with my current church, at which lively conversation and the shrieks of children provide soundtrack enough for any gathering. But even at this comparatively less-musical church, we have wedding receptions in the fellowship hall and a day care that often plays music for the children.

You might not play much, but you probably do more than you think.

Do you use on-hold music for your phone system? Host choir concerts? Play background music during your fall festival? Have an annual talent show? Offer exercise or dance classes? Take retreats and sing around the campfire? Hold weddings or funerals in your sanctuary?

Chances are, you are using music outside of worship services, and if so, you need a performance license to keep it legal and musically-enhance your events and activities with integrity.


Want to know more about copyright myths that put your church at risk? Watch this helpful video from Christian Copyright Solutions and download their free downloadable resource to worship ministers - 6 Myths About Copyrights That Put Your Church at Risk. CCS's quest is to help churches and Christian ministries "do music right." CCS is an expert on church music copyrights and our primary focus is providing licensing and clear educational resources to churches, as well as representation, administration and advocacy for copyright owners. A PERFORMmusic license starts at only $199.

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