The Rules for Playing Copyrighted Worship Songs

By Jennifer Mueller

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)

Performance License

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)

Protect against infringement by registering a copyright. Get Started Now

Duplication License

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)

Fair Use

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.

Protect against infringement by registering a copyright. Get Started Now
Music Copyright Laws for Church Praise & Worship


Related articles

Examples of Fair Use Copyright Laws in the Classroom

Copyright laws protect creative works such as photographs, paintings, poems, books and essays. The copyright gives the owner the exclusive right to make and distribute copies, sell and perform works based on the protected work. However, there are some exceptions that allow others to use the copyrighted work without violating copyright laws, including an exception for fair use in classrooms.

Music Performance Copyright Laws

An artist with a registered copyright has the right to take legal action against someone who is copying or distributing her work without permission. A person who records or distributes copies of a performance of copyrighted music—a digital copy of a live concert, for example—without the artist's consent is subject to criminal and civil remedies under the United States Copyright Act. State laws may add extra penalties and remedies to a case of music performance copyright infringement, as per Chapter 11 of the Act.

Video Copyright Laws

Copyright laws prohibit unauthorized copying or reproduction of original audiovisual works. In today’s digital world, videos exist not only in a physical form, but also in electronic formats online. Both viewers and creators of videos should have a basic understanding of copyright laws set out in Title 17 of the United States Code. Breach of copyright can lead to substantial fines.

Related articles

Copyright Laws for Textbooks

U.S. copyright law gives an author the exclusive right to duplicate and distribute her original work for a certain ...

Can I Record Someone Else's Song and Change the Words in Parody Law?

United States copyright law grants legal protection to various creative works, including songs or lyrics. Under The ...

Exemptions for Fair Use of Copyrighted Works

The fair use doctrine limits a copyright holder's rights. The U.S. Copyright Act gives copyright holders the right to ...

Copyright & Fair Use Guidelines for School Projects

Using materials created by other people in a school project isn't necessarily a violation of the copyright laws. ...

Browse by category
Ready to Begin? GET STARTED