Copyright Infringement Alert to Eastern PA Conference Churches

Recently there have been a number of claims of copyright infringement involving EPA Conference churches and organizations. The explosion of the Internet makes it easier to create works of copyright infringement and also to find them. Some companies make it a business to search the Internet for possible violations. What follows is some brief information on the copyright rules to be aware of:

A copyright is a property right under federal law that protects original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression from which they can be perceived, reproduced or otherwise communicated. Examples of works of authorship include : literary works; musical works, including any accompanying words; dramatic works, including any accompanying music; pictorial, graphic and sculptural works; motion pictures and other audiovisual works; sound recordings; and computer programs.

Among other things, the owner of a copyright has the exclusive right to do the following:

  1. Reproduce the work in copies or recordings.
  2. Prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work. (A derivative work is one based upon one or more pre-existing works; for example, the update to an existing book would be a derivative work.)
  3. Distribute copies or recordings of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental lease or lending.
  4. Perform the copyrighted work publicly.
  5. Display the copyrighted work publicly.

For churches, the majority of questions involve copying music from hymnals, sheet music and videotapes, and taping worship services for their shut-in members. The Religious Services Exemption contained in the U.S. copyright law exempts from copyright infringement any public performance of non-dramatic literary or musical works or dramatic-musical works of a religious nature, when performed in the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly. This exemption does not extend to copying the music or to audio or video taping of the performance.

The copyright owner has the exclusive right to copy or reproduce a musical work. If a church purchases sheet music or hymnals, that purchase alone does not authorize the church to make copies or transparencies of the sheet music or songs from the hymnals. This applies to the lyrics as well as the music. The primary exception is that music which is in public domain (no longer copyrighted) may be copied. Public domain music is that which has either lost its copyright protection or was never protected by copyright.

The religious services exemption in the copyright law permits the performance by the congregation and choir of these hymns in the course of the worship services; but the exemption does not extend to taping the performance. Taping or transmitting a live performance without permission or license is copyright infringement because it constitutes making a copy and distributing it without the owner’s prior consent.

If a church wants to tape copyright music for shut-in members, its options are to obtain permission from the copyright owners or enter into a “blanket license agreement.”  For information about blanket licenses, contact Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc., (CCLI) of Portland, Oregon, at 503-257-2230 or 1-800-234-2446. (Or contact another similar copyright licensing company.)

Also, for hymns projected or broadcast onto screens in the course of a service, the right to make copies for the purpose of preparing overhead transparencies ordinarily is not given to the church when it buys music. The copyright owner retains the right to make these types of copies. If the church wants to make these kinds of copies, it must obtain written permission from the copyright owner or obtain a license that permits such use.

Copyright infringement is serious and can result in significant civil damages, injunctions and/or criminal penalties. There are companies that act as agents for copyright owners. These companies have employees who spend their time traveling the country to discover unauthorized use and then collect license fees. So proceeding to use copyrighted materials without permission or license is both unwise and illegal.

The Internet presents the unique opportunity to make materials almost immediately accessible to anyone in the world with Internet access. This communication medium continues to evolve, as does the law related to it. In general, communication on the Internet is subject to the same rules as communication in print or broadcast.

If a web page owner places copyrighted material on a web page without prior permission, or allows a third party to do so, the web page owner will be liable to the copyright owner for copyright infringement. Downloading copyrighted materials (including photographs) from or uploading them to the Internet without permission of the copyright owner results in unauthorized copying.  The same is true with regard to transferring copyrighted material to a third party via e-mail.

Recent EPA Conference claims have involved the printing of a copyrighted logo on informational material and placing a poem on a web site. If your church or organization receives a claim based on copyright infringement do not respond. Instead, immediately notify the EPA Conference Liability Insurance Claims Department at 610-280-0410, extension 227. They will provide you with instructions on how to proceed.

Robert B. Shoemaker, Jr.
Attorney at Law and Conference Legal Counsel
1800 East Lancaster Avenue
Paoli, Pennsylvania 19301