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Copyrights - Essential Information

By Brian Wren


Most  people want to do the right thing about copyrights.  Here's how.

How Copyrights Work


'Copyright' means that the author, composer, originator or owner by purchase etc of any item of intellectual property (such as a prayer, hymn text, movie, photograph, melody, harmonization or video) owns the item in question, and that it cannot be quoted, reproduced or altered without their permission.

Some copyright owners ask for income from the use of their work; others do not. Some rely on such income; others do not. All have the same rights over their material.

Thus, it is illegal to reproduce, by any means including screen projection, any material that is in copyright, without prior permission from the copyright holder. Besides the ethical dimensions of copyright, several churches and church bodies have found themselves at the wrong end of lawsuits, so it is prudent to be careful.


Why Print a Copyright Notice?
A copyright notice (with or without a © symbol):

  1. Identifies the source, so that others know where it comes from, and who produced it (important for users, who often wish to know 'who wrote that?' or 'is this from the same author as that?’ and for originators who hope for name recognition - few people wish to be anonymous all the time;

  1. Protects the integrity of the material, so that it cannot be altered without permission (important for example, in translations of the Bible - to prevent people pirating the NIV or NRSV and printing versions altered as they see fit);

  1. Enables the owner to gain income from use of the material; not all copyright holders choose to do so, but their right to do so is legally protected. Salaried workers may depend less on such income than freelance workers, but both have the same legal rights.

How Can I Tell What is Copyright?
  1. In US law, copyright persists for 75 years after the death of the originator, at which point the material in question passes into the 'Public Domain,' and can be used free of charge.

  1. The benchmark is the death of the originator, not the date of composition. If someone writes a song in 1950 at age 50, and dies age 90 in 1990, their work remains in copyright until 2065. So some materials from the 1940s may still be in copyright. The song 'Happy Birthday To You' is still in copyright and will remain so until at least 20301, which is why some restaurants make up ‘Happy-hap-hap-clap-CLAP’ birthday chants to avoid copyright fees on it.

  1. As far as worship materials are concerned, there are two ways of establishing, with reasonable accuracy, whether they are in copyright, or in public domain:

    1. Check the date of composition. READ THE FINE PRINT: sometimes a melody is in public domain, but its harmonization or arrangement (often abbreviated to 'arr.' and 'harm.') is in copyright; annoying, but true. Or a hymnal committee may copyright alterations to a hymn text (annoying, and arguably unethical, but a fact to be reckoned with).

    1. Look for a copyright notice, in a list of acknowledgements, or beneath the item. If there is none, and the item is not recent, it can reasonably be assumed to be in public domain. At the very least, you know you have done your best to check the source.

Copyright Myths

"Its OK to copy this if it’s in the Hymnal." False! Permission is needed to reproduce all copyrighted material.

"Who's going to know about it?" You never know!! Working on that basis is risky in law and flouts the command to love our neighbor.

"Its OK for educational purposes." Not in worship. Very short film clips may be used, but that's an exception.

Copyright Licensing

Several publishers and groups of publishers issue licenses, renewable annually, which allow congregations to copy, for congregational use, words and music they own. The main options are OneLicense2 and CCLI.3.

Other important points


  1. Each item reprinted in a bulletin, or projected on a screen, should bear the copyright owner's notice, printed as specified in the source, under the item in question (not on another page). In the case of OneLicense, for example, the credit would read “OneLicense No. 000000. Reprinted by permission.”

  1. “On the page” is the best procedure for all works, even when not stipulated. It allows no room for doubt. If the item is in copyright, users know they need permission to further reproduce it; if public domain, users know that permission is not required.

  1. When a work, or part of a work (such as a harmonization of a tune) is in copyright, prior permission must be obtained for reprinting or projecting or otherwise reproducing it. Worship leaders should therefore check well in advance to find out if materials not in their resident hymnal or supplement are (a) in copyright and (b) covered by a license, if their church or institution has one.

  1. Licenses cover congregational use, not choral: choral items must be purchased, or separately negotiated.