Guest Post

Myth #2: “Churches are exempt from performance licensing.”

Susan Godwin CCS PhotoToday’s guest post is the first of a six-part series from Christian Copyright Solutions Founder and President Susan Fontaine Godwin, an educator and long-time member of the Christian arts community with 28 years of experience in the Christian media industry, church copyright administration and copyright management.

The upcoming July 4th holiday is always a good time to give thanks for the freedoms we enjoy in the United States. The Second Amendment, which includes freedom of religion, is particularly precious in its guarantee that we can practice our faith without fear of persecution. But just as the First Amendment doesn’t cover everything a church might want to do (e.g. trespass into a farmer’s vineyard and trample his crop for freshly-squeezed Communion juice) the Religious Services Exemption to U.S. copyright law doesn’t cover every instance of musical performance a church might have.

The religious service exemption applies only to actual religious services. All other performances—the youth events, social gatherings, retreat sing-a-long, even the music played over the loudspeakers at fall festival—require a performance license. Unless the performance is in the context of services, churches have the same copyright responsibilities as a restaurant, business, or stadium, whether you’re singing live or just playing a recording for a group of people.

It might seem funny to call the background music played during your event or the on-hold music for the office phone a “performance,” but just because you’re not standing on a stage and charging admission doesn’t mean it’s not a performance. The legal definition, in this case, is: an instance of music being performed “in a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.”

Most uses of music in a church context fit those criteria, being open to the public and/or a substantial gathering beyond a nuclear family and its guests. (Churches may talk about themselves as a family, but the U.S. government doesn’t see it that way!) So when you seek to be a 7-days-a-week church, growing disciples through teaching and fellowship, and reaching out through community events, remember that freedom often comes with boundaries, and that is the case with church music performance.

Want to know more about copyright myths that put your church at risk? Watch this helpful video from Christian Copyright Solutions and download their free downloadable resource to worship ministers – 6 Myths About Copyrights That Put Your Church at Risk. CCS’s quest is to help churches and Christian ministries “do music right.” CCS is an expert on church music copyrights and our primary focus is providing licensing and clear educational resources to churches, as well as representation, administration and advocacy for copyright owners.

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