5 Reasons Churches Need to Honor Copyrights

Today’s guest post is by Susan Fontaine Godwin, founder and president of Christian Copyright Solutions—a leading authority on church-music copyrights. She is frequently featured in Christian magazines, where she equips teams and churches to honor copyright law and use the best materials available for their worship.
Most churches want to do the right thing and honor copyrights, but there are so many needs churches want to fulfill that it’s tough to make copyright compliance a high priority.

Many Christian leaders have a vague sense of guilt when they’re burning CD copies or making photocopies of an octavo or songbook, but they often think, “Gosh, we’re a nonprofit organization, we’re doing God’s work, and who’s going to know anyway?”
So, what’s the big deal? Why is it important to understand copyright issues, and how can it affect your church’s life of worship and ministry?

Here are some of the most compelling reasons to consider:

1. It’s the right thing to do

People have an innate sense of right and wrong, and Christian leaders especially want to do what’s right. Sometimes it’s hard to see that an intangible work like a song or poem is, in fact, someone’s property. Most people know that it’s wrong to pick up an iPad and walk away with it, because we know someone paid for it and owns it. Once church leaders understand that copyrighted works actually are someone’s property, they know that it is wrong to borrow, copy, or use them without permission. In Matthew 22:21, Jesus says, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” God desires Christians to give honor and tribute where honor and tribute are due.

2. It honors and supports authors and artists

Copyright compliance helps financially support and promote the creation of new music and other creative works for the use of Christian community. Copyrighted materials that we use in worship and ministry are available because someone was called by God to create them, took the time and care to craft them, and used their resources to share them with the world. Making sure these creative individuals are paid for their work allows them to continue their ministries, and it allows churches to continue to be blessed by their work. Ensuring a favorable attitude toward creative work and creative people encourages copyright compliance and the creative passions within your church.

3. It avoids the risk and liability of lawsuits and fines

The reality is that copyright owners may file lawsuits to protect their intellectual property, and even small churches have been sued for as much as $3 million. There are many occasions when churches are sued or legal action is taken, but they choose to settle out of court with fines or financial penalties paid and no one is the wiser. Churches need to be aware of the specific situations where churches have been sued, and understand the serious reality of potential legal consequences. A ministry or church may, in fact, be sued or end up having to pay very high royalty fees to obtain licensing for products that have already been manufactured and released. Either way, it’s vital to understand the potential consequences of not obtaining proper licensing before using copyrighted material, whether it involves lawsuits and fines, or payment of high royalty fees.

4. It’s part of obeying the laws of the land

The United States Constitution, in article I, section 8, clause 8, grants US citizens special protection: “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Thus, people who create “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression” have created works that can be protected by copyright law. The intent of copyright law is not to hinder creativity, but rather to promote the progress of “. . .useful arts.”

Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13 spiritually call believers to obey the authorities placed over us.

5. It helps us be good witnesses to our communities

Philippians 1:27 exhorts us, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ,” and Matthew 5:16 says, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”  Honoring copyrights, whether or not everyone else makes CD copies for their friends, testifies your commitment to do the right thing. You never know who may be sitting in your service. One of our church clients actually had a visitor to their congregation who was the writer of a song that was used in a video during the service. The songwriter knew that a license had not been obtained and was very upset that his song was used without authorization.

Copyright compliance doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process. The best place for churches to start supporting copyright compliance in worship is education, information, and training regarding how the US Copyright Law affects their ministries and the simplest ways to be compliant. Over the course of this series, I’ll help you establish a firm foundation for copyright compliance in your church. It all starts with understanding why it matters.

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Written by
Ryan Nelson

Ryan Nelson is a writer for OverviewBible, where he uses Logos to explore the characters, groups, places, and books of the Bible. He has served in a variety of volunteer ministry positions, primarily through Young Life.

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Written by Ryan Nelson