It is critically important that churches understand and comply with copyright laws. U.S. copyright law is intended to protect the creator of intellectual property. Copyright owners hold the exclusive rights to reproduce, make derivative works, distribute, perform, publicly display, and digitally record their works. If you want to do any of these actions with someone else’s copyrighted work, then you need to get permission from the copyright owner.
Churches are NOT usually exempt from complying with copyright law. The one exception is during a worship service, but the exemption here is very narrow. Please read below and visit the additional resources to be sure that your church is in compliance.*
The GCFA legal manual has a section on copyright law (it starts on page 36); this is another good resource.
How is the church exempt from copyright law during the worship service?
Only during the worship service, churches can perform and publicly display literary and musical works. This exemption does not include audiovisual materials, and it does not allow for the reproduction, derivation, distribution, or digital recording of any copyrighted material. This exemption only applies during the worship service and does not extend to any other church activities. For more information, access the resources from Christian Copyright Solutions on the Religious Service Exemption.
Can I show video-based small group studies in my church without getting permission?
Yes. Video-based small group studies are intended to be used in this setting, and so you do not need additional permission. This permission only applies to displaying the video. You may not copy the video or printed materials in any way without first getting permission from the publisher. Many studies now include PDF discussion guides that include the rights to copy them.
Do I need to get permission to show movies or movie clips in my church?
Yes. Movies, TV shows, and documentaries require permission before you can show any part of them anywhere in your church, even in your worship service. There are blanket licenses available (see below) that cover many production studios, although some movies may require that you buy a public performance version of the film, which can cost hundreds of dollars. These rights do not allow for copying of the film in any way.
Can I copy from printed books to share with my group or congregation?
No. You must get permission from the publisher in order to make copies, print or digital, of any part of a copyrighted print resource. However, any work published before 1923 is in the public domain and can be freely copied.
Do Bible studies and Sunday School classes at the church qualify for the educational institution exemption?
No. The exemption for educational institutions is only for institutions that are legally registered as such. Your church is likely registered as a non-profit religious organization unless it also provides some sort of school, such as a preschool. Even if you do operate a school, you may still only use materials for educational, not entertainment purposes. Check your tax status.
Can our church apply the fair use doctrine?
Rarely. The fair use doctrine is intended as a defense in court, not an exemption to the law. A judge will consider all four factors of the doctrine, not just one or two. Churches usually do not qualify based on the first factor, purpose and character of use, which covers purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting , teaching, scholarship, and research. Sunday School classes do not qualify as teaching (see above). The other three factors are nature of copyrighted work, amount and substantiality of work, and the effect on the market.
Can we copy our VHS tapes onto DVD?
No. VHS is still considered a viable medium because VCRs are still being made and are easily obtainable. Many VHS videos are available to purchase on DVD. If your VHS video is not available to purchase on DVD, you still must contact the publisher to get permission to copy it.
Please visit these websites for more detailed and extensive information on copyright law compliance in churches.
Copyright & Licensing from Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church
Motion Picture Licensing Corporation FAQ
22 Most Frequently Asked Copyright Questions of Church Musicians
Purchasing a blanket license for video and music will cover your church in most instances. Follow the links below to find detailed information on what is covered.
Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI)
*The author of this page is not a lawyer. This page is intended as a helpful guide. Please seek legal counsel to be sure that you are following the law.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church
122 West Franklin Avenue, Suite 400 Minneapolis, MN 55404