Music Copyright Laws for Church Praise & Worship

By Cindy Hill

Music is an integral and much-loved part of the worship services of churches and other religious institutions. A large portion of the music sung by church choirs and congregations and played by organists or other musicians is protected by copyright law. Churches are exempt from some copyright laws regarding performances, but nonprofit religious institutions must honor all other copyright laws regarding copying and recording music for praise and worship.


Churches may not photocopy, scan, hand-copy or otherwise duplicate copyrighted music without the permission of the copyright holder. Copying and distributing written music are some of the key rights reserved to the composer, lyricist or publisher of musical pieces. Unauthorized copying of sheet music or songs from hymnal books violates copyright law and infringes on the copyright owner's intellectual property rights.


The copyright owner of a piece of music has the exclusive right, subject to limitations, to publicly perform that music or to license its public performance. Among the many limitations to the copyright owner's exclusive right to publicly perform his work is an exemption for performance in the course of church praise and worship, according to the U.S. Copyright Office. The Copyright Act, Section 110 (3) of Title 117 of the United States Code, exempts from copyright protection the performance of a musical work "in the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly." The performers can not photocopy their music, scores or scripts; each copy utilized must have been appropriately purchased or licensed by the copyright holder to lawfully invoke this performance exemption.

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The copyright law exemption for religious performance of music only exempts live performance, and does not authorize video or audio recording of that performance, according to the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. The person seeking permission to record should locate the copyright holder through searching the copyright registration database of the U.S. Copyright Office or through an internet search, and request permission to record the performance. The name of the copyright holder usually appears on published music or after each song in a hymnal. If the recording is for noncommercial purposes, such as to provide each choir member with a copy of his or her performance, the copyright holder may grant permission for free or for a minimal fee. Otherwise, a compulsory license is available for a modest, set fee under copyright law, according to the U.S. Copyright Office.

Public Domain

Old, traditional hymns may well be in the public domain and free of copyright law protections if their copyrights have expired. Religious institutions and others can make copies, create new arrangements, or write new words to spiritual music that is in the public domain. Take care to ensure that both the music and the lyrics are in the public domain before assuming that copyright does not apply, however. Some composers and hymn writers have also broadly licensed their copyrighted works to the public by way of a Creative Commons license that allows certain kinds of public use as long as the composer is recognized in the performance, copies or recording.

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Sheet Music Copyright Laws


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Copyright Issues Involving Music

A piece of recorded music is covered by two copyrights. The copyright in the composition protects the music and lyrics, if any, and is usually owned by the songwriter. The producer or record company owns a separate copyright in the sound recording, which protects the audio engineering and production of the recording. These copyrights provide their owners with the exclusive right to make copies of the music and distribute it to others, perform the music and create derivative works.

Copyright Rules & Time Limits

U.S. federal laws provide the basis for copyright rules and time limits. The general purpose of copyright law is to encourage and protect artistic and literary creativity by giving artists and authors legal protection over their creations. However, because the general public also has an interest in acquiring the right to use those creations, copyrights do not exist in perpetuity.

Copyright Law for Unpublished Manuscripts & Archival Collections

Libraries keep unpublished manuscripts, letters and other historical documents in archives. Unpublished works in archives are protected by U.S. copyright law, and authors maintain exclusive rights to control the duplication and distribution of their work. Although authors may transfer their copyright ownership to others or give a library ownership of the work itself, even if it is the only existing copy, this does not by itself transfer copyright in the work.


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