Copyright and your church

Copyright and Your Church

If you're using images, film or music in your church activities or advertising then you need to make sure you're not infringing copyright law. Here's what you need to know.

A recent ruling by the European Court of Justice has put the issue of copyright back in the headlines. The Court held that a secondary school had infringed a photographer’s copyright after a student used one of the photographer’s pictures in a school presentation which the school subsequently published on its website even though the picture had been previously available online1.

Photographs, film and music are used widely by churches both in services and at other events so, how can your church protect itself from infringing copyright law?

What is copyright?

Copyright law protects the rights of the creators of literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works (including films, broadcasts, sound recordings and photographs) and gives the creator the right to control the way in which that material is used.

This means that something that has been produced or made by someone should not be copied, used or distributed without first requesting their permission as the copyright owner.

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988 (“the Act”) sets out the acts which are the exclusive right of the copyright owner, which include copying the work, issuing copies of the work to the public, renting or lending the work to the public, performing, showing or playing the work in public, and communicating the work to the public. The Act also prevents anyone adapting the work and then performing one of these acts with the adaptation.

In addition, the Act gives an author (or director) of a work (whether or not he or she is actually the copyright owner) the moral right to be identified as the author (or director).

As Christians we need to respect those who have created music, pictures or films that we use. By complying with copyright law not only are we obeying the authorities, but we are also acknowledging and showing respect for the creative process. Copyright law can be complex but there are some simple steps your church can take to make sure you are legally compliant.

What do churches need to do?

We have a legal obligation to get permission from the original author or owner of the copyright to use their work. If you reproduce song lyrics (on paper or projected) then you need to acknowledge the copyright of the song writer and publisher (each of whom will have separate rights under copyright law) and ensure that you have permission to reproduce those words (e.g. through an appropriate licence). If you copy sheet music, show clips from films, use photographs, perform live music at an event or use the work in any of the ways restricted under the Act (and referred to above), then you need to do the same, namely credit the copyright owner (or owners) and ensure that you have their permission to use the work (e.g. through an appropriate licence).

This all sounds like it could be a lot of work. Do we need to contact every song writer of every song we sing to obtain their permission to use their music? Fortunately, there are some simple steps to take to make this a lot easier. The first port of call is CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International). CCLI produces licences for churches to use which cover the use of song words, sheet music, films and performances of live music. After purchasing your licences through CCLI you are able to reproduce the words and music whilst displaying your licence number, giving credit to the copyright owner and reporting your use to CCLI. Their large catalogue of music and film, and the simplicity of their recording process, makes the administration involved in acknowledging copyright a lot more straightforward.

You need to be careful of copyright when you are recording your services. While CCLI licences can cover playing pre-recorded music in church (for example during a sermon, or at a wedding), you should not then record this music being played. This would equally apply if a clip from a film was played – your licence may cover the playing of the clip, but it will not cover recording it.

What about photographs?

Let’s go back to the case we started with.

The ECJ judged that a school had infringed a photographer’s copyright after reproducing a photograph which was previously available online. So, how can we use photos safely? Can you use an image you found online?

You need to make sure that you have permission for any images you use online or in your literature. You cannot use an image you found on a Google image search and presume it is free from copyright. Just like music and film, you need to have the permission of the creator of the image or a licence from them to use the image for your specific use. There are various websites which offer stock photos for a fee, such as Getty Images and There are also a few sites which have a catalogue of free images such as Unsplash. Even if the image is free you should check the license conditions before use.

Alternatively, you can get in touch directly with the owner of the image and ask their permission. Remember to credit them as the copyright holder. For more information on using photographs the Intellectual Property Office have produced this guide which gives a lot of useful information.

This information has been provided by solicitors working for Edward Connor Solicitors. It is designed for the purpose of knowledge sharing only and does not constitute legal advice.

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