Music is an integral and much-loved part of the worship services of churches and other religious institutions. A large portion of the music sung by church choirs and congregations and played by organists or other musicians is protected by copyright law. Churches are exempt from some copyright laws regarding performances, but nonprofit religious institutions must honor all other copyright laws regarding copying and recording music for praise and worship.
Churches may not photocopy, scan, hand-copy or otherwise duplicate copyrighted music without the permission of the copyright holder. Copying and distributing written music are some of the key rights reserved to the composer, lyricist or publisher of musical pieces. Unauthorized copying of sheet music or songs from hymnal books violates copyright law and infringes on the copyright owner's intellectual property rights.
The copyright owner of a piece of music has the exclusive right, subject to limitations, to publicly perform that music or to license its public performance. Among the many limitations to the copyright owner's exclusive right to publicly perform his work is an exemption for performance in the course of church praise and worship, according to the U.S. Copyright Office. The Copyright Act, Section 110 (3) of Title 117 of the United States Code, exempts from copyright protection the performance of a musical work "in the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly." The performers can not photocopy their music, scores or scripts; each copy utilized must have been appropriately purchased or licensed by the copyright holder to lawfully invoke this performance exemption.
The copyright law exemption for religious performance of music only exempts live performance, and does not authorize video or audio recording of that performance, according to the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. The person seeking permission to record should locate the copyright holder through searching the copyright registration database of the U.S. Copyright Office or through an internet search, and request permission to record the performance. The name of the copyright holder usually appears on published music or after each song in a hymnal. If the recording is for noncommercial purposes, such as to provide each choir member with a copy of his or her performance, the copyright holder may grant permission for free or for a minimal fee. Otherwise, a compulsory license is available for a modest, set fee under copyright law, according to the U.S. Copyright Office.
Old, traditional hymns may well be in the public domain and free of copyright law protections if their copyrights have expired. Religious institutions and others can make copies, create new arrangements, or write new words to spiritual music that is in the public domain. Take care to ensure that both the music and the lyrics are in the public domain before assuming that copyright does not apply, however. Some composers and hymn writers have also broadly licensed their copyrighted works to the public by way of a Creative Commons license that allows certain kinds of public use as long as the composer is recognized in the performance, copies or recording.
- U.S. Copyright Office: Copyright Law
- North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church: Copyright Information
- Presbyterian Church USA: Copyright
- Duke University School of Law Center for the Study of the Public Domain: Public Domain Day Frequently Asked Questions
- U.S.Copyright Office: Compulsory License for Making and Distributing Phonorecords
A freelance writer since 1978 and attorney since 1981, Cindy Hill has won awards for articles on organic agriculture and wild foods, and has published widely in the areas of law, public policy, local foods and gardening. She holds a B.A. in political science from State University of New York and a Master of Environmental Law and a J.D. from Vermont Law School.