There are many ways to access music in today’s environment. Music is everywhere we turn, but it may not be as legally accessible as it seems. As a leader in your church, you know that music ministry is imperative to facilitate a lively and robust service, set the tone of worship, and assist with transitions during service. However, beyond all of that, there are steps to ensure that the music we use respects musicians’ rights and does not infringe copyright laws.One of the concerns regarding music distribution and performance is copyright laws. While churches do have a limited religious exemption for copyrighted material used during “services at a place of worship or other religious assembly,” according to 17 U.S. Code § 110, churches can still violate copyright law, especially in regard to music licensing.
The religious exemption allows you to play songs, recite poems, and sing hymns during service without acquiring music licenses. Note that if you have an event that does not fall under a religious worship service, this exemption does not apply, and licenses may be needed. Obtaining music licenses can be tricky, and it is important to know when they are needed.
When to Seek Copyright Licenses
- When song lyrics or sheet music are being copied and distributed, including during worship services. Hymnals comply with copyright law since the cost of licensing the lyrics and sheet music are included in the cost of the hymnal. However, most hymnals do not allow the church permission to copy lyrics onto projector slides or to make photocopies of hymnal pages.
- When you are playing or performing music off-site or outside of religious worship services. The religious exemption applies to music played during worship services. However, for after-church activities, such as picnics, outings, or banquets, ministries must adhere to the same copyright rules as other organizations. This means that you must receive permission before playing or performing copyrighted music during those times. 
- When you are streaming or projecting copyrighted music lyrics on screen or broadcasting copyrighted material. This includes rebroadcasting music/videos created by others without a license from the copyright owner.
Public Domain ExceptionIf a book, song, movie, or artwork is in the public domain, then it is not protected by intellectual property laws (copyright, trademark, or patent laws). This means it is free for you to use without permission. Performances of works that are in the public domain are still covered by copyright laws.
As a rule, most works enter the public domain because of old age. As of 2019, this includes any work published in the United States before 1924 or works published before 1964 for which copyrights were not renewed. Public domain applies to both music notation and lyrics.
If you are seeking licensing for your church, there are two ways it will most likely be successful. The first is by linking with a licensing organization. There are several commonly used licensing companies, including Christian Copyright Licensing International, Christian Copyright Solutions, Copyright Clearance Center, and One License. These are blanket options that cover any song that is within their library. Basic licenses usually cover lyrics, and there are options for streaming licenses.
Keep in mind that licensing services have limitations and may not cover everything that the church may want to include. It is important to ask questions and review the terms of your licensing agreement to know what type of uses come with your license.
The second way to obtain licensing is to locate the copyright owner and request permission, in writing, to use their copyrighted material. These methods will allow you to secure licensing for your congregation and avoid common pitfalls when it comes to following copyright laws.
As you seek to further God’s cause through your ministry, these guidelines help protect your church’s ability to enjoy the gift of music. If you have additional questions, we recommend seeking guidance from local counsel. May God continue to bless you as you use your gifts to serve Him.
 Copyright for religious organizations - Scholarly Communications Office - Emory University. (2022). Emory Libraries. https://sco.library.emory.edu/copyright/religious-organizations.html
Image Credits: adzicnatasa-stock.adobe.com