Copyright law offers many exemptions specific to certain organizations. Here we address the common questions that arise around the exemptions for religious organizations.
Section 110(3): Religious Services Exemption
Generally, a copyright owner has the exclusive right to public performance of their work. The religious services exemption allows the public “performance of a nondramatic 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” (17 U.S. Code § 110(3)). This exemption allows congregants to sing hymns during service without first getting permission. It also allows pastors to recite poems in their sermons.
Section 107: Fair Use
If the religious services exemption does not meet your needs, then you should apply a fair use analysis.
Even if you have bought sheet music or hymnals for your congregation, you cannot make a copy of that music unless it is in the public domain. Generally, music published in the United States before January 1, 1923, is in the public domain. This applies to both music notation and lyrics.
To determine the copyright status of hymns, look to the front of the hymnal. Check the copyright information on the first page or at the end of a hymn.
The religious services exemption does not cover recording a performance. You will need permission to record any performance of a copyrighted work in your service. If getting permission is not an option, you can edit out the copyrighted work from the recorded performance.
- Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI), which offers:
- Church Copyright License – covering more than 150,000 worship songs for congregational singing
- Church Video License – license rights to legally show movies for church activities
- Song Select – lyric downloads, lead sheets, chord sheets, and vocal/hymn sheets
- ScreenVue – assists in finding movie scenes for sermon and teaching illustration
- Christian Copyright Solutions partners with ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC to offer licenses to religious organizations, including:
- WORSHIPcast – allows religious organizations to webcast, stream and feature song performances on the organization’s website
- PERFORMmusic – allows religious organizations to play or perform songs in activities outside of services, such as concerts, social and youth events, seminars, etc.
- Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) is a general copyright licensing service for business and academia that can be used by churches.
- OneLicense.net is service that licenses copyright permission to reprint, podcast, and record hymns and songs for your congregation.
If you cannot license your use through one of these services, please follow the steps outlined on our permissions page.