6 Myths About Copyrights That Put Your Church at Risk 

July 28, 2015

Music performance rights represent a fairly simple concept, but one that is often misunderstood by churches. Myths often spread when there are misunderstandings, so this blog focuses on identifying six common myths in regard to the performance rights for songs and music in the context of church activities. 

Performance Rights Basics 

Let’s look at some brief definitions to help lay the groundwork for understanding performance licensing. First, the legal definition of a performance 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 church performances fit those criteria. A performance license grants permission to have these public performances, whether it is a live performance or playing of pre-recorded music. 

Performance licenses are controlled and managed by performing rights organizations or “PROs.” The three PROs in the United States are ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. Every songwriter and publisher who wants to be paid performance royalties is registered with one of these three organizations, which represent more than 17 million songs. PROs collect performance license fees for a wide range of uses, from Internet, radio and TV broadcast to stadiums and restaurants. 

Churches qualify for an important exemption in the U.S. Copyright Law (section 110[3]), but it is vital that church leaders understand which performances qualify for the exemption and which do not. According to the exemption, the following performances are not infringements of copyright: 

“Performance of a non-dramatic music work or of a dramatico-music work of a religious nature, or display of a work, in the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly.” 

Now that we have laid the groundwork, let’s investigate some common myths about performance licenses. 

Myth #1: 

“I need a performance license to play secular music in service.” 

Due to the religious service exemption, churches do not need a performance license to play or perform secular music in worship services. In fact, churches do not need a performance license to play any kind of music, whether it’s live or pre-recorded. Much of the confusion stems from a misunderstanding of exemption. 

The religious service exemption applies both to live performances of music as well as the playing of pre-recorded music. The exemption applies to all music, Christian and secular. 

The only musical exception is “dramatico-musical” works of a non-religious nature, such as secular operas or plays. These are not exempt and would require licensing. 

Myth #2: 

“Churches are exempt from performance licensing.” 

Another common misunderstanding of the copyright exemption is when churches believe that the exemption applies to all of their use of copyrighted music, regardless of the context. This is not the case. The religious service exemption applies only to actual religious services. All other performances require a performance license, as stated below: 

“…in the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly.” 

Outside of religious services, churches have the same copyright responsibilities as a restaurant, business or stadium. 

Myth #3: 

“The religious service exemption allows me to broadcast my church’s performances.” 

Many folks are under the assumption that the religious service exemption allows them to webcast their performances of music, such as the worship team during a service. This is also not true. While the religious service exemption allows churches to play and perform copyrighted music without paying royalties, this exemption does not extend to re-transmission of the service. 

This was a real grey area until 2006, when a publisher named Simpleville took a radio station to court for rebroadcasting several churches’ services, including the music portion. The defendant’s argument against liability was that he could broadcast the songs because the songs had been performed during church services. The court rejected the argument, stating that the exemption applies only to performances that occur at the place of worship; it does not extend to broadcasts of those performances. 

The Congressional history shows that the exemption does “not extend to religious broadcasts or other transmissions to the public at large, even when the transmissions were sent from a place of worship.” If a church is going to have its services on TV or radio, those stations will need to have a performance license. If a church is going to webcast its services, it will need an Internet performance license (often referred to as an Internet streaming license) if it is performing copyrighted songs. 

Myth #4: 

“The Church Copyright License by CCLI provides performance licenses.” 

We have found that many churches are unsure of what rights the Church Copyright License by CCLI grants and which uses of copyright fall outside of its coverage. The Church Copyright License by CCLI is a great resource for churches; however, it does not grant performance rights needed for a Church to use music outside of worship services. 

(For additional information on the rights and limitations of the Church Copyright License by CCLI refer to the license terms of agreement provided by CCLI.) 

The Church Copyright License by CCLI grants a very specific set of rights, including: 

• Print songs in bulletins, liturgies, programs, and song sheets* 

• Print songs in bound or unbound songbooks compiled by the Church* 

• Make overhead transparencies, slides, or to utilize electronic storage and retrieval methods for the visual projection of songs 

• Print customized vocal and/or instrumental arrangements of songs, where no published version is available* 

• Translate songs into another language where no published version is available 

• Record songs in church worship services by either audio or audio-visual means* 

*Note: The quantity of copies and recordings that may be created is limited based on the “Church Size” of the licensee. For additional information on the limitations, church responsibilities, and additional restrictions on rights granted, please refer to the Church Copyright License terms of agreement provided by CCLI. 


Myth #5: 

“My church does not perform music outside of services.” 

When church leaders realize that the religious service exemption does not apply to music performed outside of services, often the immediate response is, “We don’t play any music outside of services.” 

This is very rarely the case. After some quick reflection, most churches recognize that they are playing lots of music outside of their worship services, including: 

• Coffee shops 

• Bookstores 

• Concerts 

• Retreats 

• Picnics & barbecues 

• Singles groups 

• Dances 

• Carnivals & festivals 

• Graduations 

• Award ceremonies 

• Testimonials & retirements 

• Dance classes 

• Exercise classes 

• Karaoke 

• Conferences & seminars 

• Vacation Bible School 

• Camps 

• Sporting events 

• Movie nights 

• Pageants 

• Youth group gatherings 

• Guest speakers 

• Wedding receptions 

• On-hold music 

• Music before & after service 

• Community events 

• Retirement home visits 

• Day care 

Each church should review its music uses to determine if it needs a performance license. Most will find that they do. 

Myth #6: 

“PRO licenses are difficult and expensive to obtain.” 

Many folks believe that performance licenses are difficult and expensive to maintain. This is not true. Christian Copyright Solutions (www.christiancopyrightsolutions.com) offers two licenses that cover all of the song catalogs of ASCAP, BMI and SESAC

The PERFORMmusic License by CCS provides churches and ministries with a license for the performance of live and pre-recorded music in their facilities, including satellite campuses. The license covers all 20 million songs from ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, including all genres of Christian and secular songs. The PERFORMmusic License starts at $299 per year. Click here to buy this license today.

The WORSHIPcast license by CCS allows churches and ministries to webcast their performances of all 20 million songs from ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, including all genres of Christian and secular songs. The WORSHIPcast license starts at $225 per year. Click here to buy this license today.

To learn all about music licenses download our new ebook “Solve the Puzzle of Copyrights: Six Steps To Learning How To Do Music Rights” By Susan Fontaine Godwin. You can download the eBook for free here.

About Christian Copyright Solutions: CCS’s quest is to help churches and 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. Follow us on Twitterand FacebookThe information contained herein is for informational purposes only, and is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel.

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