Myth Solvers Month – Religious Service Exemption Not for Streaming

January 2, 2015

Myth: The Religious Service Exemption allows us to broadcast our church’s performance online.

False. While the U.S. Copyright Law’s religious service exemption [110(3)] allows churches to play and perform copyrighted music in a religious service without paying royalties, this exemption does not extend to re-transmission of the service. This may have been a 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 stream its services, it will at least need a performance license if it is performing copyrighted music.

Let’s look more closely at exactly what the exemption states:

“performance of a non-dramatic literary or musical work or of a dramatico-musical work of a religious nature or display of a work, in the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly” shall not constitute infringement of copyright.

In other words, you do not have to get permission from the copyright owner or pay royalties to perform music or display the lyrics of a work in a religious service. This applies to the “performance” and “display” rights, which are only two of the six rights of the copyright owner. The exemption does not apply to the exclusive rights of the copyright owner to:

  1. reproduce a copyrighted work;

  2. distribute the work;

  3. make a derivative work (like a translation or arrangement) or;

  4. perform a digital sound recording (through digital transmission on the Internet or by satellite).

Let’s break it down into three important elements:

  1. Types of copyrights: Only musical works and non-dramatic literary works (like poems, prose, short stories, books, periodicals) are exempt.

  2. Types of rights: Only “public performance” and “public display of the works are covered.

  3. Location and setting: DURING the course of services AT a place of worship or other religious assembly.

Get a free download and read “Copyrights 101” for more details about copyrighted works and the owner’s bundle of exclusive rights.

As long as services are being conducted at a religious service gathering, the exemption would apply even if they are held in “non-religious” venues such as an auditorium, stadium or theater. The exemption does not cover, however, cover re-transmission of the service online. As a result, if your church wants to stream your service and include your music performances, you will need a song internet performance license. A simple and affordable solution is available with CCS’s WORSHIPcast License, which covers 17 million secular and Christian songs.

Within a church’s facilities, the exemption does not apply to music being performed or played outside a religious service for activities such as concerts, aerobics and dance classes, youth and children’s programs, social events, fundraisers, coffee shops, or music-on-hold. A performance license is required and a simple solution is provided with CCS’s one-stop PERFORMmusic blanket license, which covers more than 17 million songs from ASCAP, BMI and SESAC.

About Christian Copyright Solutions: 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. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook. The information contained herein is for informational purposes only, and is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel.


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