Digital media has changed copyright law for churches

Ronald E. Keener

The explosion of digital media has changed copyright law since the last publication of Essential Guide to Copyright Law for Churches (CTI, 2011). Author Richard Hammar says  that “copyright law in the United States was established at a time when the primary concerns were literary and musical works in written form. But we now live in the Information Age in which computers, software, electronic and digital modes of storage and communication, and the Internet, have led many to view paper publications as obsolete.”

Hammar is an attorney and CPA and senior editor of Christianity Today International’s Church Law and Tax Report, Church Finance Today, and He responded to Church Executive’s questions:

What else is new since the third edition?

At the same time, the prodigious amount of free information on the Internet has contributed to the public perception that “on-line” information should be free, and this perception runs headlong into attempts by copyright owners to exact payment for access to their online information.

In short, we are in the midst of a monumental struggle to resolve these divergent views, and this struggle directly implicates several common church practices.

What are some common mistakes or misconceptions churches have regarding copyright?

  • That religious music is not protected by copyright law.
  • That documents, music and pictures containing no copyright notice are in the “public domain” and freely usable.
  • That pastors can quote whatever they want from recent translations of the Bible without violating copyright law.
  • That churches can show movies so long as they paid for them.
  • That pastors and Christian education classes can show excerpts from movies or television programs.
  • That church employees own the copyright in works they create in the course of their church employment.
  • A church can make transparencies and slides of copyrighted music that are displayed on a screen or wall during worship services without violating the copyright law.
  • It is okay for churches to make and sell video and audio recordings of worship services.

“Streaming” worship services over the Internet does not violate the copyright law.

What’s a “horror story” of a church in not observing copyright law?

A Michigan court ruled that a church had to pay $1.6 million in damages for recording a soloist’s performance during a religious service without her permission and then selling CDs of the service to church members and the general public.

How is social media impacting copyright, if at all?

There have been few cases involving allegations of copyright infringement by social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.). But, I would expect a lot more litigation in this arena as a result of infringements by social media users on the exclusive rights of copyrights owners, most notably the rights of reproduction and adaptation. Persons who copy and disseminate copyrighted text, images, or music via social media are exposing themselves to a liability risk that must be taken seriously.

“Pastor Sunday” gets a book contract with “ReallyBigBooks” publisher. What rights does he retain; what rights go to the publishing company?

That depends. If the book is written in the course of employment, it is a “work for hire.” The Copyright Act states that the employer is the author of a work for hire, and unless the parties have agreed otherwise in a signed writing, owns the copyright in the work.

And, while the parties can agree in a signed writing that the employee owns the copyright, this raises significant legal and tax issues including possible jeopardy to the church’s tax-exempt status. There are two options.

First, the pastor scrupulously avoids writing the book in the course of his or her employment. This means that the book is written at home, during non-office hours, using the pastor’s computer and resources. Second, a signed agreement can be executed recognizing the pastor as the copyright owner.


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