Unmasking Copyright Myths that Put Churches at Risk

October 20, 2015

October always brings a flurry of church activities and events, and use of music greatly enhances Fall and Holiday programs, but what about copyright licensing requirements?

Understanding music performance rights and licensing can be confusing for church leaders who are committed to copyright compliance. It’s especially important during the fall and holiday season for churches to identify what they need for coverage and make sure the songs they want to play or perform are licensed. 

To help clarify what churches need in the way of licensing, let’s address and solve several myths that are prevalent. You can find more details by downloading our Free Fact Sheet, “6 Myths About Copyrights That Put Your Church at Risk.” And be sure to sign up for our FREE Live Webinar “Unmasking Scary Copyright Myths” on Wednesday, October 28 at 12 noon CDT.

Here’s one myth that comes up quite often:

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

Many church leaders assume that the U.S. Copyright Law religious service exemption allows them to webcast their performances of music, such as the worship team during a service or a special holiday program. This is not true. While the exemption allows churches (and non-profit religious organizations) to play and perform copyrighted music without paying royalties in  their worship service, this exemption does not extend to re-transmission of the service.

The religious service exemption of the U.S. Copyright Law (Section 110[3]) 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.”

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.

CCS’s WORSHIPcast one-stop license provides coverage of more than 17 million songs from ASCAP, BMI and SESAC when you stream your performances of music, whether in a worship service or special event. CCS has partnered with ASCAP, BMI and SESAC to simplify the licensing process and provide the one-stop Internet performance license. Annual fees start as low as $225.

#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: “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, so long as it is during a religious or worship service.

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 exception in the exemption is “dramatico-musical” works of a nonreligious nature, such as secular operas or plays. These are not exempt and would require licensing.

If a church plays or performs Christian and/or secular music outside their religious service, then a performance license is required from ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, or you can obtain the one-stop PERFORMmuisc License, which includes more than 17 million songs included in the repertoires of ASCAP, BMI and SESAC.

Myth #4: All the songs we perform or play are covered by our CCLI License.

In fact, the CCLI church license does not cover performance rights, but only the right to duplicate or reproduce more than 300,000 Christian songs used in congregational singing. CCS’s PERFORMmusic License does cover these types of events and activities and allows your church to play or perform more than 20 million Christian and secular (including holiday) songs.

Myth #5: “My church does not perform music outside of services.”

When church leaders realize 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:

  • Christmas programs
  • Christmas caroling
  • Singing Christmas Trees
  • Harvest events
  • Coffee shops
  • Bookstores
  • Concerts
  • Carnival & festivals
  • Dance & exercise classes
  • Conferences & seminars
  • Youth gatherings
  • Social gatherings
  • On-hold music

Each church should review its music uses to determine if it needs a performance license. Most will find that they do. CCS’s one-stop PERFORMmusic License covers more than 20 million songs for all of these types of activities outside worship services, and annual fees start as low as $299.

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 and Pinterest.   The information contained herein is for informational purposes only, and is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel.  

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