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Seven things you need to know about CCLI

What do these worship events all have in common?

  • A youth group plays the Christian music the kids really want to hear
  • A worship group plays at another church to celebrate a pastor's 50th anniversary
  • A congregation takes home a wedding hymn on a printed order of service
  • A missionary leads a bible study that includes some singing

They were all thought to be legal, and they all turned out to be illegal. Why?

  • The great songs the kids really wanted to sing were not covered by CCLI. The kids were banned from singing the songs until the church could purchase a license in advance for each individual song the kids wanted to sing.
  • The worship group's church had a CCLI license, but a regular CCLI license is not valid away from the normal church location.
  • The congregation had a CCLI license at the time of the wedding, but the license later expired, which immediately made all the printed orders of service illegal. The terms of the CCLI license require the church to hunt down and destroy all copies of every song ever reproduced once a license runs out.
  • The missionary is in one of the many countries in the world that does not have any CCLI licensing. Even if CCLI was available, registering her missionary activity to make it copyright compliant might end her ministry and put the local church at risk.

A standard CCLI license covers surprisingly little. What's not covered is likely illegal, so those scary-looking Interpol or FBI copyright warnings you see at the beginning of DVDs often apply as much to your worship music as to your movie.

Unintended copyright infringement might be just the beginning of unpleasant licensing surprises. Here are the seven key questions and answers churches and worship leaders need to know.

Will CCLI keep you out of jail?

Not necessarily.

Let's acknowledge that the chances of going to jail for Christian copyright are extremely low.

Even criminal punishment in the form of fines is pretty unusual. But the laws are on the books, and even if churches may not have faced criminal charges, companies and individuals certainly have. And with legislation to combat copyright violations like the US SOPA/PIPA bills, the potential for fines and even jail is going up.

What is already common are civil penalties. This is what is most often in the newspaper, where copyright infringers are sued for thousands by the copyright owner.

The threat of jail isn't generally needed, as being sued is usually plenty to get people to pay up and get legal. You've maybe heard of churches in your area being visited by Christian 'copyright police' looking for violations. We've never been able to substantiate one of those stories, but we have heard of churches shutting down certain worship activities because they've heard rumours of copyright inspectors in town.

Of course being sued is not the main concern: Churches want to do what is legally right. (Christian musicians want to as well, but it is almost impossible to use CCLI licenses to stay legal as an individual musician.)

The easy-looking road to being legal is buying a CCLI license. We put four letters and a number on the screen and the bulletin, and hope it makes everything right. These examples show it's not that easy.

CCLI may be just a line item in the budget and a license number on the screen for most worshipers, but it is very important. Let's take a look at where CCLI - Christian Copyright Licensing International, Inc. - fits into our worship.

What exactly does CCLI do?

CCLI provides a financial connection between churches that want current music and songwriters that wish to charge royalties.

In the business world, every time a piece of music is used for something like an advertisement or TV show, there is a royalty that must be paid to the songwriter. The royalties can easily last more than a hundred years, so frequently the songwriter gives, sells or bequeaths royalty rights to a company so royalties can still be collected long after the songwriter is dead.

The same business model can be applied to worship music, where every time a worship song is sung there could be royalties payable. (Technically, it is often the printing the song in a bulletin or displaying it on a screen that is illegal without paying royalties - the actual singing of a song during worship may be free if no-one needs the words or music.)

CCLI allows songwriters who choose a commercial model for their worship songs to collect these royalties in an easy way.

CCLI also benefits churches that want to use worship songs that are released under a commercial model, because CCLI makes it easy for churches to make one annual payment to one organization, instead of finding every song owner, negotiating a license, and paying them individually.

However, the standard CCLI license does not cover every use a church might make of a song, and the church is responsible for knowing when extra licensing rights are needed, and paying CCLI extra accordingly. Churches also bear the cost of tracking and submitting the usage of songs to CCLI, and for many churches this tracking cost likely exceeds the cost of the license.

How much of what the church pays goes to songwriters?

CCLI does not pass along all collected royalties to songwriters, since it needs a certain amount to cover its own costs and produce a profit.

CCLI is a private company. It has no obligation to disclose how big a share it takes, and it chooses not to do so. It does publicly commit to making sure at least half the fees that churches pay go to songwriters.

Beyond that, CCLI does not allow churches to know how efficiently it uses the fees charged. (CCLI does share certain financial information with copyright holders. However, this is only a confidential basis, and then only if they attend an annual meeting in each region where their song is used. CCLI also maintains advisory boards composed of copyright owners in each region, but chooses not to disclose to its church customers who serves on the boards, how the board positions are filled, or what happens when there are conflicts between the advisory board and company.)

CCLI generally enjoys a good reputation. The lack of transparency would be a major warning sign for a church or charitable organization, but generally not for a company. In fact, it is perfectly normal for CCLI as a private company not to tell its customers (churches) what it pays its suppliers (songwriters), or how much profit it makes.

CCLI pays songwriters in proportion to the number of times a song is reportedly used. A 'hit' song that is widely used will be paid out the lion's share of fees from churches. Other songs less widely used receive less. Our estimates show that for an 'average' song, based on the 200,000 churches registered with CCLI in North America, a songwriter would receive less than $40 per year. Since the distribution is skewed toward a small number of popular songs, the average CCLI song likely pays far less.

CCLI supports Christian songwriting in that songwriters produce songs in the hope of scoring a major hit that will produce a huge windfall, just as in the commercial songwriting world. However, as a royalty distribution business, CCLI cannot really divert funds to support Christian songwriters in other ways.

How much do we depend on CCLI?

If CCLI were to go out of business, how much music worship would there be this Sunday? In many congregations, just about none.

The regular copyright used for most commercial Christian worship songs means in many countries it would be more than 100 years before it would be legal for the church to worship with them without a license (they eventually fall into the public domain, where anyone can use them for free).

If the CCLI plug were pulled, the congregation could go back to using hymn or song books that were commercially published, provided that the words of any song used from the book that was still under restrictive commercial copyright were not printed out in an order of service or shown on a screen.

The congregation could also use any songs not covered by restrictive commercial copyright. These could be from current songwriters that choose to use a Creative Commons license, or songs older than 1922 (the exact year varies from country to country).

Over time, if the congregation could track down the copyright owners of songs it wanted to sing, it could attempt to negotiate licenses. The congregation could also write new songs itself.

However great a company CCLI may be, bad things still happen to good companies.

Anything that can happen to any company can happen to CCLI: It can shut down, go under, be bought, be sold, get new management or change direction. If a church ran like a company - and admittedly that is a very bad idea - the church would identify dependence on CCLI as a major risk factor.

What are the alternatives?

There is one thing that is different about CCLI as compared to most companies churches do business with: CCLI has no competitors.

Churches can change their cleaning service, rent a different building or even change their pastor, but there is no real alternative to CCLI in terms of efficiently licensing worship music that is under traditional commercial copyright.

To its credit, CCLI tries to be a 'religious' company. However, that may actually bring even more risks: In most western countries, companies do not have the same freedom as churches or religious charities from political decisions dictating their beliefs or actions. It is not hard to foresee CCLI as a private company being prohibited from licensing certain songs that become incompatible with the local political climate, or being forced to license and promote certain songs that are incompatible with CCLI's statement of faith. In many countries, private companies routinely face the choice of conforming to local political direction, or ceasing operations.

So despite how much we depend on it, there's no certainty that CCLI as we might know and love it today will be there tomorrow.

What happens if CCLI is not available?

For most of the world, it is as though CCLI is already shut down. In the majority of countries - by number or by population - CCLI licensing just doesn't exist.

With the way we license almost all Christian worship music, there is simply no way for most people in the world to use that music to worship legally at all.

There may not be thousands of churches in China wanting to worship in English by singing 'Mighty to Save', but when that missionary in the example gets visitors from home, it is still illegal for them to sing it. Even translating lyrics into a local language is a violation of commercial copyright.

The countries where CCLI is active tend to be those countries that take copyright protection most seriously, so if CCLI were to become unavailable it would be even more serious for all Christian music under conventional 'commercial' copyright.

In early 2012 there was a lot of concern over two pieces of legislation proposed in the US - SOPA and PIPA - that had the objective of banishing copyright infringers into internet oblivion, as well as setting out very severe penalties to anyone facilitating the sharing of materials with commercial copyright. Since there is legally no difference between a pirated DVD and a pirated worship song, without CCLI, the same provisions that would be applicable to Internet movie pirates would apply to most churches and most Christian worship musicians.

Though churches and musicians would find it very difficult not to break the anti-piracy provisions, it is generally the copyright owner that causes actions to be taken against infringers. We might expect that a Christian songwriter would not initiate legal action against Christian churches. However, in many cases the copyright of Christian songs are owned by companies that have a duty to their shareholders to maximize profit. These companies might be more likely to act against churches, since churches are easier to find and more likely to pay than a distant Internet pirate.

It is also important to remember that copyright is not just for life, but for decades after life, so long after a songwriter is dead, there will be some entity that will control the commercial copyright of the worship songs, and it is impossible for the songwriter to predict or control what a subsequent owner might do.

What can churches and songwriters do?

CCLI is currently able to do a good job in the few countries where it is available. Continuing to use CCLI is realistically the only option for most churches - but that is not all that churches can do.

Cutting off most of the planet from worship music doesn't seem consistent with the Great Commission. And setting up churches to be punished like Internet pirates doesn't seem healthy either, should CCLI cease to be available in one or more countries in the next hundred years.

Fortunately, the growing solution for churches, publishers and songwriters is straightforward: Don't use commercial copyright for spiritual songs.

Songwriters can use a Creative Commons license, which allows their work to be legally used anywhere in the world. The license is both non-commercial and secondary, which means that the songwriter can still collect royalties if someone records their song and sells it, or from CCLI in countries where that is applicable and someone has a CCLI license.

Churches can take three steps of their own:

  • Make a policy of using songs that are under Creative Commons licensing. Tell Christian songwriters and publishers that even though you use CCLI, you want all your songs to be available for non-commercial worship legally around the world.
  • Ask for worship materials like hymnals and songbooks produced by your church or denomination to also be released under a Creative Commons license.
  • Release your own ministry materials - songs, recordings and sermons - under a Creative Commons license.

All these steps are easy to take, and completely free. DeoSound has information to help songwriters, churches and Christian organizations make the right choice for songs, whether they are mainly for ministry or primarily for profit.

Whether songwriter or church, you can ensure that your ministry materials don't put other Christians at risk of copyright violations. As you take these visible steps, you'll also help other Christians become aware of the dangers of using 'commercial' copyright for Christian worship and ministry - and what we can all do to free God's word for the world that needs to hear it.

DeoSound believes that respect for copyright is important. For keen-eyed readers, the 'Get out of jail free' card is of course from the game Monopoly. Monopoly is a registered trademark, and each new version of the card itself is copyright. The version shown here is from 1936, and the original poster at maintains that this particular card image is out of copyright and in the public domain.

Why CCLI is not a get out of jail free card, and what you should do about it