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7 Simple Steps to Church Copyright Compliance
By: Susan Fontaine Godwin

As a church leader, you wear a lot of hats and carry a variety of responsibilities on your shoulders. So, when the topic of copyright compliance arises, it can be overwhelming to think about all the issues involved. When is a church required to obtain permission for song use? How can a church obtain the permissions it needs? What if your church wants to create a video? And on, and on…

However, just like most things, if you break it down into easily-digestible pieces, copyright compliance for your church can be greatly simplified, and can be easily and affordably achieved.

1. Appoint a gatekeeper.
It’s important that you charge one key person with the responsibility of identifying and obtaining the necessary licensing. This person could be someone who has some basic copyright knowledge—your music director, or a church member with a legal background—or it could be someone with a vested interest in learning more—a worship leader or choir volunteer. The important thing is that this person is willing to learn about copyrights, consistently convey that information to the church and possess the personal attributes necessary to point out when copyright infringement may be occurring. They have to be willing, at times, to not be the most popular person in the room.

2. Start with a solid foundation.
When it comes to copyrights, the most foundational action your church should take towards compliance is securing performance licensing.

U.S Copyright Law (section 110[3]) states that churches (along with any religious organization) do not have to get permission to perform or play music (or a non-dramatic literary work) during a religious service at a place of worship or other religious assembly. This is often referred to as the “Religious Service Exemption.” Beyond this exemption, however, churches MUST secure licensing for almost any activity and manner in which they use copyrighted materials. It’s important to note that the Religious Service Exemption specifically applies to performances that take place during a worship service, it DOES NOT exempt churches from the requirement for performance licensing outside of services.

Most churches require performance licensing for routine ministry activities, as well as special events.

There are three ways to obtain performance licensing for your church:

• You can contact each individual copyright holder and/or publisher directly to obtain permission and pay royalties for each song use.

• You can go to each individual Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) and get an annual license from each one (ASCAP, BMI and SESAC), sign three agreements, pay three fees and submit three reports.

• You can purchase a one-stop blanket performance license which will cover your song use for one year, with one annual payment. No reporting is required.

3. Understand and fully utilize church copyright blanket licenses.
Blanket licenses are the best option for the most cost effective, convenient and easiest copyright coverage. In addition to the blanket performance license, there are blanket licenses available that allow churches to stream copyrighted works online and reproduce lyrics and audio recordings.

Why isn’t there just one blanket license that covers everything? The simple answer is: “Because one size does not fit all.” Just as with insurance or bandwidth or apples, you do not want to have to pay for something that someone else consumes, and that you do not need. To be fully compliant, some churches will need just one blanket license. Others will require several. The key is to consider how your church uses copyrighted music and to put together the “mosaic” of blanket licensing that is right for you.

Each blanket license covers a specific song catalog for specific uses for a specific period of time (usually one year). The catalogs they cover vary greatly so it’s important to consider the songs your church uses, to ensure you’re getting the best coverage to meet your church’s needs. The annual fees for most blanket licenses are based on the size of your congregation, which greatly simplifies budgeting. 
4. Organize and plan your special projects.
Special projects, such as the creation of a CD or DVD, are very individualized and, therefore, are not covered by any blanket license. Depending on the project, you will need to obtain master recording licenses, synchronization licenses and/or other special licenses. These licenses can take 4-12 weeks to obtain, so you’ll want to start early. To begin the project, you’ll need to compile the following information for each song you will use:

• Names of songs(s)
• Names of writer(s), author(s) and/or producer(s)
• Who is performing the song version you are using (your praise team, the original artist, or someone else)
• How you are using the song (video, CD, etc.)
• Where you are distributing the song (website, live presentations, etc.)

Once you have compiled all of the information for your project, you need to begin to contact each individual copyright owner for each song you want to use. Each song may have more than one copyright owner so it’s important to do thorough research. Also, be aware that it is up to the copyright owner(s) as to whether permission for each song use is granted, or not.

5. Work with copyright professionals.
Although it is possible to navigate the process of obtaining all of the licenses you need for a special project, many churches find that reaching out to copyright experts greatly simplifies the process. For more complex copyright issues, you may want to consult an attorney specializing in copyright law.

6. Educate your staff and volunteers.
Once you have proper licensing in place, it’s important to convey your church’s copyright compliance standards to your staff and volunteers through a written Copyright Commitment. Make sure each person in a leadership position has a copy and post it above copiers, near computers, in your music room and anywhere you think copyright issues might come into play.

7. Never use copyrighted works without permission or exemption.
Although securing the proper licensing may sometimes take longer than you had hoped, if the necessary permissions have not been obtained by an event or release date, the show must NOT go on.

This document provides information and not legal advice.

CCS’s Founder and CVO, Susan Fontaine Godwin is an educator and long-time member of the Christian arts community with 28 years of experience in the Christian media industry, church copyright administration and copyright management, www.christiancopyrightsolutions.com. For CCS’s FREE Fact Sheet that explains the available blanket licenses and what you can and cannot do with each, please visit www.christiancopyrightsolutions.com/docs/factsheets/FactSheet-ChurchBlanketLicenses.pdf.

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