Does My Church Need a Copyright License for Music?

Attorney, The Creekmore Law Firm PC


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In an earlier post, my colleague discussed how typical small businesses, like restaurants and dance studios, can obtain permission to play music in their establishments from major Performing Rights Organizations like ASCAP and BMI.  What about churches and other houses of worship? Do they need a music license too? The short answer is probably “yes.”

Whether a church needs a music license will depend on the activity in which the church is engaged. Title 17 of the United States Code, governing copyright, reserves several rights to the author of a creative work. They include the right to publicly perform the work, to reproduce the work, and to redistribute the work, among other rights. These rights belong with the “author” of a work, or in the case of a musical composition, the composer of the work.

To use the rights belonging to a composer, a person usually pays a fee for a license. The license may allow the person to play live music, to rebroadcast the music (such as on the radio), or to make a recording of their own performance. Organizations like ASCAP and BMI provide such licenses for reasonable fees to businesses and individuals across the United States.

Churches may obtain a license to perform music too, although it is not absolutely required that they obtain a license under the Copyright Act. Rather, under Title 17 of the United States Code, section 110, churches and other houses of worship can be exempt from copyright infringement for the public performance of  a copyrighted work.  The work must be (1) of a religious nature and (2) performed in the course of a religious worship service.  Whether a particular work is of a religious nature, or whether a particular service counts as a worship service, will depend upon the particular facts.

Of course, this exemption applies only to the public performance right, not the other rights that the composer has.  For instance, a church that duplicates sheet music or records DVDs of the performance of a song will probably require a license.  CCLI, a Christian music licensing agency, is a go to source for licenses that cover this sort of activity.  An experienced copyright attorney can also provide advice on sound practices to ensure your church abides by United States copyright law.

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