Churches and Copyright: What You Should Know

January 28, 2014 - 4 minutes read

Purpose of copyright

Copyright exists to protect the economic and moral rights of the producers of creative works. Creators’ rights include the right to publish, reproduce, communicate, perform and make adaptations of their work.

The material has to exist in a fixed manner to be considered a work. This means it has to be written down or recorded in some other way. An idea that is merely talked about in conversation is not covered by copyright. Copyright is automatic from the moment the work is created in material form – there is no need to go through a process for a work to be covered.

How Australia’s copyright laws work

Copyright comes under Federal law. Copyright law is complex, and the conditions of copyright of a work depends on the type of work it is.

With regard to material used by churches such as music and song lyrics, the general rule is that copyright covers the work for 70 years after the death of the creator, and also 25 years after a published edition. Once copyright has expired the work enters the public domain and it is no longer necessary to seek permission from the copyright owner to reproduce the work.

What churches need to consider

Church music performance:

Congregations who wish to play live or recorded music in a service, wedding, funeral or baptism, will not need a licence or permission from the creator or copyright owner to do so, although they may require a licence to reproduce lyrics.

Playing music outside of these contexts will require a licence. The type required will depend on the type of event  or activity – APRA-AMCOS will be able to provide more information on this.

Other situations:

In general, whenever you use or copy a creative work from any source – whether a website, newsletter, song book or other source – you need to be mindful of copyright. Even if you hold a copyright licence it might not cover the particular work in question, or the particular activity, event or situation.

Simply attributing  a work to its author may not be enough if the work is still under copyright and you do not have a licence to cover the work and the context. In this case you should contact the copyright owner for their permission. In many cases this is likely to be the publisher of the work. If unsure who the copyright owner is or you are unable to locate them, contact APRA-AMCOS for assistance.

CCLI Church copyright licences

The CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International) Church Licence will cover your church for over 150,000 musical works if they are used for church activities. The Music Reproduction Licence provides greater scope for copying music and lyrics. Other types of licences are also available including those for one-off events, for video showings, and for schools.

However the terms of the licences are complex, and you would need to contact CCLI to find a licence to suit your congregation and the types of events and activities your church is involved in.

What could happen if you don’t comply?

Basically – it could be costly! In fact in 2011 it cost a Uniting Church congregation in Queensland $10,000 in legal costs and damages when they published written work on their website, but failed to acknowledge the author or obtain permission from the copyright owner. Obviously it was not deliberate and was just an oversight, but one that clearly wasn’t worth it in the end!

Written by Tess Oliver