Copyright and Religious Organizations

Copyright exceptions use by religious organizations:


The religious services exception exempts the performance of non-dramatic literary or musical works of any nature, and dramatic-musical works of a religious nature from the exclusive rights of the copyright owner, if:

  1. the work is used in the course of religious services, and
  2. is used at a place of worship or other religious assembly.


If your use does not fall within either of the above exceptions, then you should apply the fair use analysis.


Copying of Music:


The purchase of sheet music or hymnals alone does not authorize a church to make copies (this includes making copies of just the lyrics) unless the music is in the public domain, published prior to 1923 in the U.S. or prior to 1909 in a foreign country, or is used in an emergency situation for an imminent performance.


To determine the copyright status of hymns, look to the front of the hymnal. Copyright information may also be found at the bottom of the first page of a hymn, or at the end of a hymn.


Audio and Videotaping of Services:


The religious services exception described above does not extend to the taping of a performance. Permission is needed before recording and distributing any copyrighted material within your services. Other options include omitting copyrighted music from the taped performance or splicing in pre-recorded public domain music.


Getting Permission:


Start with a licensing organization like Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI), which offers:


  • Church Copyright License – covering more than 150,000 worship songs for congregational singing
  • Chruch Video License – legally show movies for church activities
  • Song Select – lyric downloads, lead sheets, chord sheets, and vocal/hymn sheets
  • SecreenVue – assist in finding the perfect movie scene for sermon and teaching illustration


Or Christian Copyright Solutions, which offers:


  • PERMISSIONSplus – customized annual service plans for all types of copyrights, projects and activities
  • WORSHIPcast – allows churches and non-profit religious organizations to legally webcast, stream and feature your song performances on your website featuring more than 16 million musical works from ASCAP, BMI and SESAC
  • PERFORMmusic – allows churches and non-profit religious organizations to legally play or perform more than 16 million songs from ASCAP, BMI and SESAC for non-exempt activities such as concerts, social and youth events, seminars, music-on-hold, weddings, aerobics and dance classes, in your coffee shops, bookstores and throughout your facilities
  • VIDEOready – allows camps, churches and ministries to score highlight videos with today’s most popular Christian artist songs


The Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) is a general site with information on obtaining permission to re-use content. is a site with information on obtaining copyright permission to reprint, podcast, and record hymns and songs for your congregation.


If none of those organizations can license your use, please following the steps outlined on our permissions help page.


Textual Resources

  • Hammar, Richard R.  The Church Guide to Copyright Law (3rd ed.)


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