The 1976 Copyright Act provides a limited exception for churches to play copyrighted worship songs during services without obtaining permission from the copyright holder. Aside from this limited exception, the law requires churches obtain a license before using copyrighted music. Use of copyrighted music without a license is considered infringement of the author's exclusive rights to control the copying, performance, and distribution of his music.
Religious Services Exception
Authors have the right to control the performance of their copyrighted works. However, the Copyright Act provides an exception for worship music performed at religious events. Under this exception, performances of literary or musical works that are religious in nature may freely be performed during religious services at a church or synagogue. (See References 1, Section 110(3)) This exception applies to performance only, and does not allow for copies of the music to be made, or for the performance to be recorded or broadcast elsewhere. The religious organization must be nonprofit and cannot charge admission for the performance. (See References 3)
A performance license allows churches to play music in locations or at events that do not fall under the religious services exception. For example, Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) and Christian Copyright Solutions (CCS) offer a blanket church license that allows performance of more 200,000 songs throughout church facilities, conferences and seminars. The license also allows broadcast to other locations affiliated with the church. License fees are based on the size of the church’s congregation. (See References 2)
If music has been published prior to 1923, the song is in the public domain and may be used freely. For music published after 1923, a license is required for churches to make copies of a piece of music for congregational singing or choral performance. As with performance licenses, there are agencies that offer blanket church licenses covering a broad range of published worship songs. (See References 3) For example, Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) offers a license that allows churches to print copies of songs for congregational or choral use, and to broadcast music or lyrics during services using visual projection methods. (See References 4)
Some uses of copyrighted music by churches may also fall within the statutory exemption for fair use, a defense asserted after a copyright infringement suit has been filed. Courts balance four factors: the purpose of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount of that work that was used and the effect of that use on the future market value of the copyrighted work. Given that church use of worship songs is precisely the use contemplated by the copyright holder, obtaining a license is less risky than relying on the defense of fair use.