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Theft in Church

Is theft happening in your church?

If you use music, images, or videos anywhere in your worship or website, the technical answer is probably ‘yes’.

Copyright is a legal and ethical minefield for Christians and our churches. Laws vary in every country, and in many countries laws concerning fair use of copyright material are not always clear or consistent. It doesn’t help that our culture – outside and inside the church – generally accepts ‘sharing’ of files that in many instances is illegal.

Generally, every creator anywhere in the world automatically receives protection for their created work. The author typically has the right to choose how their work will be used or copied - copyright.

Whether a work has that well-known copyright symbol © doesn’t matter, though that makes it easier for people to know that the author intends to assert some of the rights they have. Unless you have documented permission from the author, using the work is copyright infringement – and illegal.

The length of protection varies, but is often 50 to 75 years after the death of the author, so just because something is old doesn’t mean it can be safely used. In fact, it can be more complicated because you need to find all the creators, find out when each of them died, and make sure enough time has passed since the last death. Expensive, and sometimes effectively impossible.

So how can material be legally used?

  • When it is licensed to you for each specific use you intend
  • When there is ‘fair use’ such as for research or review
  • When it is in the public domain (copyright has expired or been waived)

A license is simply authorization from the author to use the work. For example, authors of many Christian worship songs provide a license through CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International). However, the terms of every license are limited. Just because a song is licensed through CCLI for use in worship does not mean you could record your worship service and put it on YouTube, or include a song on a DVD for your Vacation Bible School. A separate license, and potentially licensing fees, may be required for legal use. Many songs recorded by Christian artists, and occasionally used in worship, are not covered by CCLI, and separate performance licenses may be needed. Each use must be analyzed given the terms of the specific license – and for most material, the license conditions will be different in every circumstance.

The legal concept of ‘fair use’ might apply to briefly quoting song lyrics in a sermon, and no license would be required. But a video clip from a movie? A performance license is needed for the church. If a group rents the church and wants to show a video clip? The church’s license probably doesn’t cover it, and the group must obtain its own license (and the church may be liable if the group does not get a license).

Only work that is known to be in the ‘public domain’ can be safely used for any purpose. Work becomes public domain either when the copyright has expired, or when an author waives their copyright and releases the work into the public domain. In either case, a church would be wise to have written proof a work is public domain, because the safe assumption must be that all works are copyright. Sometimes while a work is in the public domain, an expression of the work, such as an edited version of the text, can be put under a brand-new copyright starting with the editing, and unless you can find a copy that is still in the public domain, your use of the work that you might expect was free is actually again subject to the new copyright.

What happens when a work is used outside these narrow limits?

That depends on the use, the law, and the country, but the penalties can be very severe. The benchmark penalty for violating song copyright in the United States is $25,000 per song, per instance, but some awards have been higher. A few worship services on the web could bankrupt most churches – if the copyright owners pursued it.

Note that copyright owners don’t have to pursue everyone that is infringing their copyright: They can choose to make an example of an individual, congregation or denomination. A theologically conservative copyright owner that did not approve of a liberal church could use the copyright to attack them, or vice-versa. These sorts of attacks are not currently common in copyright, but patents are routinely used by companies to attack and derail competitors.

If you or your church misuse copyright material - misuse as defined by copyright law, not misuse as you might think reasonable - you are exposed to potentially crippling financial damages. Remember that Al Capone was never caught for violating prohibition, but for tax evasion. If someone is bothered about your church preaching God’s word, catching you for breaking copyright law may be one way to stop it. Laws can be used in interesting ways.

Of course, we must not lose sight of the fact that God expects us to obey the laws issued by those he has put in place to govern us. He does not require that the laws be sensible in our opinion, or evenly applied. Unless a law is directly against God’s Word, such as a law banning us from praying or worshiping, God says that breaking that law is wrong. And if we suffer for breaking the law, we are expected to bear the consequences. We will suffer the earthly consequences for our own sin, and we cannot pretend we are suffering for Christ or the Gospel.

So what should you and your church do?

One: Don’t steal from others.

Don’t take theft lightly. Ensure that church staff and church leaders understand the importance of copyright. Be prepared to stop using material where the copyright makes it illegal, or uncertain. Yes, this may have an impact on church activities. But it will not have a negative impact on ministry. Why? Because a holy God does not depend on unholy actions to accomplish His purpose. It is impossible for unholy actions to advance His kingdom more than the holy alternative would.

Two: Don’t tempt others to steal from you.

When it comes to ministry, whether you write songs or write sermons, don’t use the conventional copyright system. God did not copyright his Word, or intend for it to be locked up so that anyone could profit from it. God not only gave us his word for free, but actually went the other way and paid a huge price to give us his living Word in Jesus.

Instead of allowing your ministry works to fall under copyright and be blocked from free distribution – even accidentally because you don’t specify anything else – there are two good alternatives you may consider:

  • Place your works in the public domain
    This makes your works freely available to everyone.  However, because your work is no longer licensed in any way, you no longer have any control over what happens to it.  It may be used for purposes you disagree with, and under some circumstances, others may be able to profit from it even if you don't.  Even with these disadvantages, placing your works in the public domain may still be preferable to conventional copyright.
  • Place your ministry materials under a Creative Commons license
    This can also make your work freely available to everyone.  Your work is still licensed, so you still retain some control. For example, you can prevent commercial use of your work, while still allowing it to be used for free.  You can also use the license to ensure that your work remains free.  Creative Commons licenses take advantage of the copyright system, using it to promote sharing of your ministry work instead of blocking it.

DeoSound believes that Creative Commons licenses are the best option for most Christian ministries and works.  DeoSound works to help the Christian community understand how to use the right licensing so the Good News is spread faster and wider.  Learn more about our Free the Word campaign.

Copyright law may be a nightmare. But we can still honour God in our lives and our churches by following it, or where that is too difficult, not using copyright material.

We can also honour God by using prayerfully using our talents as he would want. It makes sense for the world to use copyright for protecting profits, but it may make more sense for us to use copyright to get God’s freeing word out to a needy world.

Copyright is complicated. Breaking the law is bad. How Christians can get onside, and stay onside.