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Copyright for the Church Musician

Church musicians have always found it difficult to act in full compliance with United States' and international copyright laws and conventions. As with dieting, it's not a matter of our lack of resolve — it's our inability or unwillingness to act in accordance with our resolve. Most of us truly want to be in accord with the copyright laws, and we want our churches to understand and obey those laws. That's even scriptural.

It's also not a matter of our ignorance of the law. While we may not know the intricacies of the law, we generally know its purpose and intent sufficiently to know when we are breaking it. And if there are those among us who claim total ignorance in such matters, I believe them to be negligent in doing their jobs to the fullest benefit of their employers. In a time when information is so freely available — books, pamphlets, websites, listservs, agencies, workshops, telephone, and e-mail — there is no longer any excuse for ignorance of the law. The law now recognizes this by imposing mandatory sentences with no leniency for excuses. In this time of heightened enforcement of the law by government and heightened prosecution of offenders by publishers, copyright holders, and administrators, those who continue to act illegally or claim ignorance bring great risk to their employers and shame to themselves.

So why do we continue to do it? Why are we still debating and complaining about copyright law in the church? Here are some reasons/excuses:

  • We've forgotten the purpose of copyright or never knew it to begin with. Copyright exists solely for the purpose of allowing the creator or administrator of the rights to control the use of the work and protect his or her income derived from it. Copyright does not exist to assist church musicians and ministers in their work. Copyright benefits the owner and restricts the user. The thought is that in guaranteeing these rights, the government encourages the continued artistic development of the culture to the benefit of all its citizens. Public domain is the highest evolutionary plane for any artistic creation; but until it is fully evolved, it is protected by copyright.
  • It's so easy for us to break the law. There are copy machines, computers, projectors, high-speed duplicators, inexpensive sound duplication, video recorders, IPODs, file sharing, the Internet at blazing speed and wireless access, and thousands of companies selling these products to us and encouraging our legal and illegal use. All of this is now in OUR control. We no longer have to go to experts to do this work for us. We do this work whenever and wherever we like.
  • The work that we do is sacred and holy. God has called us, and the church has employed us to do it. This is ministry, not just a job. We are reaching out to the world to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of that world. The government shouldn't be getting in the way of that with inconvenient copyright laws.
  • We are so overwhelmed by all the details of our work that we just don't have time to accomplish everything in accordance with the law. It's simply impossible to plan far enough ahead to clear copyrights, make legal purchases, and keep our churches within the law.
  • The law is detailed, complex, and confusing, and the church won't pay someone to interpret it for us.
  • I'm only one person; my church is only one small and insignificant church; we're located out in the middle of nowhere or in the middle of the urban jungle. We're not on anyone's copyright radar screen, and no one will ever bother to find out whether we're legal or not.
  • Our budget won't support the paying of royalties, permissions, and licensing fees to keep us legal.
  • We're doing the Lord's work here, not Caesar's.

Do any of these sound familiar? I expect most of us can hear ourselves saying one or more of them. The reality is, however, that none of these will hold up as reasons for ignoring the copyright laws — not one of them. Our work is so important and beneficial. It is ordained and commissioned by God. And copyright is so complicated, so restrictive of that work, and so difficult to follow. COPYRIGHT JUST SEEMS SO UNFAIR.

But What About…

Many of the questions I receive by e-mail or in workshops are not so much questions or requests for copyright information as they are well-constructed arguments to justify a particular situation or practice that is really unlawful. The conditions and details are laid out in such a manner that a response that the practice is illegal will seem unjust or illogical. We practicing church musicians really want the law to benefit us and our congregations. We want the law to be worded and implemented to make our lives easier. We don't want to know of or be bound by a law that is designed to control our activities for the benefit of the copyright holder.

Here is a sampling of actual questions recently received and my response to each. They are included here both to show the kind of justifying language used in setting up the question as well as in the hope of providing answers to questions that are common in many churches.

Regarding contemporary style songs covered under CCLI: Are downloaded lead sheets covered if you get them directly from CCLI? Can you create your own lead sheets (in easier-to-sing keys) if the song is covered under CCLI? Sometimes I need to transpose these by at least a third or fourth to put them in a better range.

Transposing is not the same as arranging. There is no prohibition in the copyright law against transposing protected music, unless you're making copies. Read on…

What about whole arrangements that need transposition? Many of these worship songs were written for tenor voice, which puts it too high for most of the congregation - and even for me as I am a mezzo and sing it in the treble range. My accompanist is wonderful at classical, baroque, and modern, but he is clueless about contemporary popular and rock styles he is not familiar with. Sometimes I would prefer he use the arrangements as performed on the contemporary worship albums. When he improvises with a lead sheet it often comes out all wrong stylistically. It's great when I can just have him play it the way it was arranged for the recording, but then we are stuck with a key that is too high for most of our voices. Is it legal to purchase an arrangement and then transpose it note by note into notation software as long as we are not doing it to avoid the purchase of the music?

This question poses a slight variation on the first. You're not asking if it is legal to enter copyrighted music into a music software notation program so that you can then create a duplication of the original in a different key. Since you don't mention making alterations to this music, I assume you are not making an arrangement of it — that you're merely transposing it. The law prohibits you from making changes without permission. You may not make a derivative arrangement without permission. The other part of the question presents a problem. While there is no prohibition against transposing music, the law does prohibit you from electronic storage of copyrighted music without permission. Since by definition you can't make a transposed printout without entering and storing it electronically, this use is not allowed by the law and would require permission of the copyright holder. It seems like a small hair that's being split here, but the law is clear about electronic storage of copyrighted music. The same hair is split when you talk about writing out a transposed version by hand. Here you're making a physical hard copy of the music in the new key, and this would then require permission.

I have a small group in the church that always sends e-mails to me whenever the choir/s sing any anthems, introits, and so on that contain any male references to God — He, Him, Father, Lord, and so on — most recently the children's choir singing "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel." While I understand their feelings/frustrations, I just don't know what to do! Wouldn't it be illegal of me to change the text? Copyright infringement? I always hear one woman change the Our Father to Our Mother. I asked her about this, and her reply was, "We don't really know that Christ said, "Our Father" or cried 'Abba'. Please guide me — I am SO VERY frustrated.

First, if you are singing or speaking public domain texts and want to make written changes, such as the traditional version of The Lord's Prayer, then you can legally change the language to anything you prefer. If you want to make written changes for singing public domain words within a copyrighted musical setting, such as the familiar Malotte setting of "The Lord's Prayer," then you can change the words as you wish.

If, however, you want to make written changes for singing or speaking copyrighted words, the law does not permit you to make any changes to the text, even if you have purchased a music license (CCLI, LicenSing, OneLicense.net). You must reproduce the copyrighted text without alteration, or seek permission of the copyright holder to make changes.

There are legal options, however. If you are singing a copyrighted text from the hymnal, such as "He touched me" (Bill Gaither's hymn) and you want to change it to "She touched me," while the law prohibits you from changing the text in your hymnals or reproducing the revised text in your bulletin or projection screen, it does not prohibit you from giving the verbal direction to your congregation to "Please sing 'She touched me'" and then allowing them to sing whatever they prefer. The law does not control the verbal use of the text, only the written and reproduced use of it. I frequently invite congregations and groups I lead in singing "He Who Began a Good Work In You," 2163 in The Faith We Sing, to sing "God who began a good work…" In your hymnals or choir music, while you may not actually make changes within the printed hymn and text itself, it is legal for you to notate such changes in the margins or at the bottom of the page, if you wish. As with all copyright matters, you may always request permission of the holder to make the changes. If they refuse, you're no worse off than before you asked.

Finally, the attitude of the church member who said, "We don't really know whether Jesus prayed 'Our Father' or 'cried Abba'" is troublesome. Even if she is correct, using that as a justification for altering a copyrighted text is illegal. A copyrighted text is protected from changes without permission … period. Of course, in this particular example, the text is actually public domain, so she can change it however she sees fit.

We are going to try a piece for Palm Sunday where some of my choir members are also ringing. I want to extract just their bell part and their vocal line so they can see both at the same time. The bell part is not visible in the choral score nor vice-versa. Can I do this legally?

It may be that the publisher will be pleased to grant you this permission if you ask. However, the copyright law does not allow you to do this without permission.

I have older choristers with poor vision who enlarge their music to see it. Is that wrong?

Publishers have avoided selling enlarged copies of choir music because they would sell for a higher cost and they would sell many fewer copies. Hymnals and congregational songbooks, on the other hand, often are published in enlarged print editions, as is our United Methodist Hymnal and The Faith We Sing. There is no provision in the copyright law that allows you to make your own enlarged copies of choir music, hymnals, or songbooks without first obtaining permission of the copyright holder. In the case of hymns in a hymnal, this often means you would have to obtain the permission of the specific copyright holder of the hymn(s) you want to enlarge. The hymnal publisher cannot grant such permission on behalf of other publishers. Since many hymnals are available in large print editions, my guess is that most publishers will want you to either purchase that edition for your use or pay them a royalty for the permission. Some music licenses allow for the copying of congregational lyrics for use in worship. If you own a license with this provision included, then you may make copies with enlarged type of those lyrics, but be certain about what your license says about copying melody lines, voice parts, and accompaniments. These are usually excluded. Read your license or call your licensing company.


Can of music being played in an organ recital copies be made so that the program can proceed smoothly and without the need to stack books on top of each other and constantly move them around?

If one owns a collection of arrangements and the editing is such that the page turns are all but impossible, can copies legally be made so the music can be arranged in sheet protectors, etc., to facilitate page turns as long as both the collection and the copy will not be used at the same time, but rather one or the other?

What of my organist who insists on using photocopies to avoid awkward page turns and books that refuse to stay open?

There is no provision in the copyright laws that provides for photocopying and using protected music in these situations without the permission of the copyright owner. As logical as this kind of copying appears to us and as restrictive as the law appears in not providing for it it, it is still the law. Your options are to contact the copyright owner for permission or to act upon the assumption many musicians hold that publishers will not prosecute such use.

What about making your own transcription of a published work? Here's the deal: I play guitar in our praise band. We have spent a lot of money purchasing folios and collections of praise and contemporary worship music to "get legal." The vast majority of these works do not include guitar lead sheets. They are written for vocalists and pianists and usually run into many pages with page turns at the MOST awkward places for guitarists. In order to make this work, I sometimes make my own lead sheets by transcribing (not arranging) the songs, by hand, onto real paper. I'm the only one using them — everyone else seems to have enough hands to turn the pages. We own copies of the books for everyone in the band.

First, I commend you on your diligence to "get legal." You've hit on one of the problems with music publishing regularly experienced by most musicians, not just guitarists: and that is inconvenient page turns. There's also the other problem you mention: the published score is for all instruments, so it takes up so many pages, when almost any single instrument could do better with a much shorter edition for that instrument only, which is the custom for orchestral music.

These are all problems overcome by the relatively simple procedure of transcribing your own lead sheet. The question is, however, is it legal? The answer is no, not without having obtained permission to do the transcription. In the act of transcribing, you are making a copy. Some copyright holders may even contend that by altering the original score that you legally purchased, you have made a new arrangement, even if you haven't altered the words, melody, or chords. As with many other questions about copyright, the inadequacy of the purchased score and the simplicity and usability of your solution do not constitute permission to make the transcription. That can only be granted by the copyright owner.

I cannot speak for any copyright owner, of course, but my guess is that if you contacted the owner, explained the situation, proposed your solution, and requested permission, you would be granted that permission. It is also possible the owner would grant you permission but charge you a small fee, or perhaps the owner has already prepared and makes available separately a version that you can use. All those decisions are entirely up to the copyright owner.

Our church has MIDI recording capabilities on the organ and also has a Clavinova with a disk drive. I have multiple disks on which I have recorded pieces either to save the registrations, to use for emergency 'snow days,' music I have recorded to play while I go to the Communion rail, or anthem accompaniments that I have recorded so I can conduct. Could you make a comment about this 'electronic storage' and the copyright law?

I also have purchased a digital voice recorder. Last week the accompanist was having trouble with the counting in the anthem. I recorded two pages of the anthem at home and e-mailed the audio file to her for home practice. Are these types of usage illegal? I'm guessing from all the other e-mails that the answer is probably 'yes,' but it actually never crossed my mind until these recent discussions.

Questions Summarized

  1. Is it legal to record copyright music for play-back in worship for occasions such as snow days or while the musician takes Communion?
  2. Is it legal to record my own accompaniments of solo or choir pieces for accompanying while the choir sings in worship?
  3. Is it legal to record pieces or portions of pieces and give them to the accompanist for study or imitation?

Responses to Summary Questions

  1. The law prohibits the making of tapes, CDs, tracks, MIDI sound files, and so on to be used to accompany soloists, choir, or congregation in worship, even for such good reasons as snow days and to free up the accompanist to take Holy Communion. To do this legally, you need to acquire a mechanical license from the Harry Fox Agency or permission from the copyright holder.
  2. Same response as a.
  3. Same response as a.

The problem here is that despite the very good reasons for your needing to make these recordings, the law makes no allowance for them. If the music belongs to someone else, the law requires you to secure their permission or the appropriate license to make copies or recordings. It puts the burden squarely on the musician or church to do it legally. Neither the copyright holder nor the government has any responsibility for granting exceptions to the law or for making it easy for us to obey the law.

Another aspect to this question is the role played by the manufacturers of the technology that makes it so easy for us to make these illegal copies and recordings. Some years ago there was a great debate between the interests of the copyright holders (aided by publishers, authors, composers, and performance rights societies like ASCAP and BMI) and the companies that manufactured VCRs, tape recorders, and the then new digital devices. The position of the manufacturers was that WE don't make the copies, WE don't break the law, WE don't steal the intellectual property – the guilty parties are those who make the copies illegally, and THEY are the ones you should be going after. (That would include a lot of church musicians.) The argument of the copyright holders was that the manufacturers have made it so easy to steal their property and deny them income that they should bear some of the responsibility; besides, it's impractical to expect the copyright holders to hunt down every offending church musician and take legal action to recover their financial losses. The outcome of that legal dispute was that a portion of the cost of every video and sound recording device (the recorder, the tape, and the disc) goes to a fund that is ultimately shared by copyright holders. This decision also was cited as precedent in the more recent case involving Napster and Internet music file sharing, in which millions of users were uploading and downloading music files illegally at no cost, with millions of dollars in losses being borne by the copyright holders. Our use of MIDI, making our own accompaniment tapes, and using equipment such as Yamaha Clavinovas is not much different from putting a copyrighted hymn on the photocopy machine or into a PowerPoint slide for use in worship without asking permission. The technology is a wonderful boon to our work, but it does not excuse us from the provisions of the law.

I have been following the threads and reading the FAQs regarding copyright law and the church. What I am interested in is a practical application and recommendation by which a church could adhere to the copyright laws. From what I have seen in the Q&A and the threads, it is pretty much illegal to do any type of modification to a copyrighted work without the express written permission of the copyright holder. This poses a pretty serious problem for the church: How do we comply with the copyright laws without the need for employing a full-time staff member to keep track of all the various requests for permission every time we might want to slightly modify an arrangement, alter a lyric slightly, or transpose a work? The paperwork required would surely be immense, and nearly impossible to track and keep up with for a church, let alone attempting to get the necessary permissions from the individual copyright holders in a timely fashion. Many times we will prepare a new song for worship just days prior, and find it necessary to modify the work to suit our group's style, voices, or abilities. According to what I have seen, any attempt to do this, even without actually writing said modifications down, would be a violation of copyright law without receiving permission beforehand. Help!

There is only one question asked in the above paragraph: How do churches comply with the law without having to hire a staff person just to do the work? The rest of the paragraph names the very common, very real problems faced by churches in complying:

  • It is illegal to modify a copyrighted work without permission.
  • We have frequent need to modify an arrangement, alter a lyric, or transpose a work.
  • The paperwork required to make changes legally is "immense."
  • The time required to make requests of individual copyright holders and keep track of those requests is also great.
  • It is impractical to expect us to plan far enough ahead to make permission requests in a timely and legal manner because we so often make last-minute changes and decisions.

The question, In light of these obstacles faced by churches and musicians, is actually two-fold: How is it possible for us to remain within the law and how can we do it without having to hire a dedicated staff person?

My response must begin with the affirmation of all of the stated obstacles to obeying the law. I have personally experienced them in churches I have served as well as in my work at the Discipleship Ministries. Surely most of us are all too familiar with them. Part of the answer is in the intent of the copyright law — it exists solely to protect the interests of the copyright owner. The practical aspects, workloads, programming requirements, budgets, and staffing needs of churches are not a consideration in the law. It is really a simple matter — the law exists. and we are required to work within its confines. If we do not, we are at financial and legal risk. There is no way to turn the intent of the law around by asking, "How can I make it practical to my needs as a local church musician?" It can't be done. The expectation and requirement of the law are that we will fully comply.

Perhaps rather than "How can I make the law practical," the question should really be, "How can I comply with the law?" Here are some suggestions. Each one of us will have to decide how practical they are:

  • Plan further ahead. Avoid last-minute changes.
  • Keep a calendar or log for copyright needs only — dates planned, dates requests made, approvals and denials, royalty or payment due dates, etc.
  • Ask the church for additional staff support.
  • Find a volunteer.
  • Keep a log of names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of copyright holders, publishers, and so on. If you can cultivate a personal relationship, you'll have an easier and shorter time in getting responses.
  • Develop an e-mail template or form letter that you can use for your requests.
  • Inform yourself, your church staff, and your church leaders about the requirements of the law.
  • A more radical approach is one that some larger churches have taken, and that is to avoid using copyrighted music. One of the larger churches in Nashville, with a 100+ voice choir that provides choral back up to many recordings, TV, and movies, gave up on trying to work within the law. In worship they now use only music composed, arranged, and controlled by their own musicians. Most of us, of course, don't have the people in our churches to allow for that.

The reality is, as I've already stated, the copyright law is not for the benefit of the churches. There is no way for us to make compliance an easy or pleasant thing, or in the words of your question, to make it "practical." That does not, however, excuse us from its provisions. The temptation is for us to become victims of the impracticality, the frustration, and the demands of the law. It is so easy for us to simply say, "I can't follow it. It's too hard. It takes too much time. It's too complicated. It's too expensive. It's too restrictive." All of that may be true, but it is still the law.

Each of us decides if we pay all our taxes, if we drive within the speed limit, and if we pay for our gas before driving away from the pump. We know the consequences of not obeying those laws. We may not like those laws, but we don't insist that they be made "practical" for our personal needs and circumstances. We can ignore them if we wish, but it is at our risk. The same is true with copyright. As with the laws covering taxes, speed, and theft, we don't get to decide which parts of the law we'll obey and which parts we'll ignore.

What Do Church Musicians Want?

Recent messages posted on the Methodist Musicians Listhave demonstrated great frustration and dissatisfaction with United States' copyright laws. Some church musicians work hard at remaining within the law. Others break the law regularly, sometimes offering an excuse; sometimes claiming ignorance. Still others are somewhere in between. But nearly all the writers are unhappy with the restrictions and requirements the law places on their ministry in the local church if they are to remain within the law.

It comes as a revelation to some musicians that the copyright laws exist for the sole protection of the rights of the creator or administrator. Church musicians are the ones whose obedience to the provisions of the law is demanded and whose activities in music and worship ministry are controlled.

Many of the messages to the Methodist Musicians List have called for changes to the law. Some have even suggested specific changes, while others have offered suggestions that may lead to change. All of these suggestions would result in a less restrictive, less controlling copyright law that would allow church musicians to make copies, record, or broadcast copyrighted material in certain situations that now are forbidden.

With so much frustration and anger over the law on the part of musicians, some want to know who is responsible for the law. Who makes the law? Who benefits from it? Just who is it that likes these copyright laws that are so inconvenient for church musicians? Here are some answers:

  • Who makes copyright law? Copyright laws are federal, which means they are proposed, passed, and altered by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. States and other government levels do not make copyright laws.
  • Who benefits from the law? There are many groups and individuals who benefit from copyright law, some directly, some indirectly:
    • Authors and composers: The reasoning behind copyright law is to provide a period of protection of a created work during which the creator may control its use and derive financial gain from it through sale, publishing, licensing, rental, arranging, and performing.
    • Society and culture: After the period of copyright has expired, the work is no longer protected. It is no longer owned by the creator, and it becomes public domain. All copyrighted works eventually become public domain, able to be used by other artists, thus enriching the artistic life of all persons and the society as a whole.
    • Arrangers: Arrangers of a copyrighted work earn income from their own legally protected arrangements.
    • Recording companies: Recording companies earn income from copyrighted works through sales and licensing of their recordings. Each separate copyrighted song on a CD is covered by at least two copyrights: one on the song itself and one on the recorded version.
    • Performers: Performers earn income from copyrighted works through live performances and by receiving royalty payments from licensing performances of their works and arrangements.
    • Publishers: Publishers are those individuals and companies who have negotiated with a copyright holder to market the property and collect and then share the sales income with the owner.
    • Performance rights organizations (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC) – Performance rights organizations collect royalties for live, recorded, and broadcast performances of music of their members and then return a portion in royalties to the songwriters, publishers, and authors. ASCAP had record earnings in 2005, generating $749 million and paying out a record $645 million to songwriters and composers. BMI earned $728 million and paid out $623 million (The Tennessean, 3/13/06, p.E1)
    • Licensing organizations (Harry Fox, LicenSing, OneLicense.net, CCLI): Licensing organizations earn income in different ways, but these involve the granting of permission to either record or reproduce copyrighted music or lyrics. A portion of the licensing fees are returned to the copyright owner. The print licensing companies such as CCLI gain the most when license holders fail to report their use because they then do not have to pay the copyright holder a royalty on that use, and the money remains with the company as additional income.
    • Retailers: Retailers are middle merchants; that is, they purchase copyrighted print and recorded music at a lower cost, mark it up, and re-sell it to buyers at a higher price.
    • Technology companies (copy machines, computers, projectors, IPODs, software): Of the ten groups listed here that benefit financially because of copyright laws, technology companies are the only ones that benefit more from the breaking of the copyright laws than by the obeying of them. But it is the existence of the copyright laws that allows them to benefit by the breaking of those laws by users.

Copyright: Fair Use and the Church

FAIR USE is a provision of the copyright law that allows for reproduction of copyrighted material under very limited circumstances, including: for comment, for criticism, and for parody. But be warned that FAIR USE almost never applies to the church, to worship, to choir music in concert in church, to copyrighted hymns in worship, instrumental or vocal or choral music used in the church, or to any use of music in the church, including worship, rehearsal, Sunday school, day care, youth groups, retreats, congregational worship, concerts, devotions, meetings, mission projects, -- almost any situation in the church is not covered by FAIR USE.

The FAIR USE provision of the copyright law almost exclusively applies to academic and educational settings, and does not include claims of academic and educational settings within the church. FAIR USE may be applied to certain conditions of music use in a church-related academic institution, such as Southern Methodist University, but it cannot be applied to the copying of music for worship or concert performance by the SMU choir in chapel worship, or for any use within a local congregation.

Even in academic and educational institutions, there are restrictions on FAIR USE. Of the four factors applied in judging whether a particular use constitutes FAIR USE or not, the two most critical are:

  1. How much is copied? A better case can be made for FAIR USE when very little is copied than when large portions or all of the original are used. Complete works, or even performable portions of works, are likely to be judged as outside FAIR USE. In any case, no more than ten percent of a work or ten percent of a performable unit of a work can be copied under FAIR USE.
  2. What is the economic impact of your claimed FAIR USE on the copyright owner? Does it deny the owner potential income? If so, it likely is not FAIR USE.

But remember, even these two above conditions can not be applied to church use because FAIR USE is limited to academic and educational use, and NOT use in worship, rehearsal for worship, church concerts, and so on. Never forget that the educational exemptions written into Section 110(1) of the Federal Copyright Act, Public Law 95-553, Title 17 of the United States Code are quite narrowly defined and apply to face-to-face teaching situations in full-time, non-profit academic institutions only.

For good information on FAIR USE and its application in academic and educational comment, criticism, and parody, see the Stanford University website: http://fairuse.stanford.edu/Copyright_and_Fair_Use_Overview/index.html

Changing the Copyright Law

Some of the writers to Methodist Musicians List wrote in favor of changing the law. They spoke of removing or reducing penalties. They want publishers to lower their prices. They want licensing companies to lower their fees and royalty rates. They want everyone to simplify the paperwork and record keeping. They ask how to get the law changed:

  • The law can be changed only by those who made the law — the U.S. Congress. Don't waste time talking to local or state officials, or to the U.S. Copyright Office.
  • The same can be said about the ten individuals and groups listed earlier who benefit from the copyright law. They will not be receptive to invitations to support legislation that will lower their financial gain for the sake of church budgets and musicians' work schedules. In fact, an organized campaign to make the copyright law less restrictive will be met by substantial and well-funded opposition from these groups.
  • Informing the general public through news releases, letters, e-mail messages, and websites does little to change the laws. The sharing of information must be followed by action directed at those who write the laws.

It is unlikely that U.S. Senators and Representatives will alter the copyright laws to make them less restrictive. The history of copyright law is one of increasing protection, longer periods of copyright protection, and stronger enforcement of the law. It is also unlikely that those who benefit from the law will make it less cumbersome or less expensive to receive exceptions under the law. What for church musicians is a means of engaging in ministry is for them a means of earning an income.

So, what is the church or musician to do? While we can certainly lobby for change, our real choices are only two: to obey the law or to break the law. And it truly is a choice. We should remember that those who enforce the law of the land do so for the benefit of those whom the law protects and not those who break it.

The unfortunate reality is that many musicians and others in the church confronted with the requirements imposed by copyright law have chosen an option other than working within the law. The restrictions, prohibitions, timelines, record keeping, and financial costs are such formidable obstacles that we have resigned ourselves to some degree of breaking the law. We measure the benefit of our illegal actions against the time and money it would take to act in accordance with the law, or against the likelihood of our breaking the law and being found out. Some of us continue to claim ignorance of the law even though the law now provides for mandatory sentencing. As shown in the content of questions asked about already existing illegal practices in the church, some of us go to great lengths to justify those practices in our own minds.

Who actually decides that a particular practice is illegal, and when is that decision made? Those decisions are made only by the courts, not by composers, authors, arrangers, publishers, licensing companies (Harry Fox, CCLI), or performing rights organizations (ASCAP, BMI). A practice is illegal only when it has been judged so by a court or judge. You may be engaged in clearly illegal activity, such as photocopying choir anthems rather than purchasing them, or recording and selling CDs of music without paying royalties, or renting a movie to show a video clip as part of the sermon. You may be found out by the copyright administrator and be told to stop the practice and perhaps to pay a back fee. Even at that point, you are still faced with the decision of yielding to the demands of the copyright administrator or continuing your practice. Is the publisher willing to take you into court to stop the practice and recover lost income and damages? Some churches and musicians have clearly made the choice to continue their illegal activity even in the face of a publisher's demand, believing the publisher will not invest the time and expense in a lengthy and costly legal process. On a small scale, this is the same kind of legal maneuvering and challenge going on between YouTube (owned by Google) and media conglomerate Viacom over YouTube's posting of Viacom's copyrighted videos. The question for us in the church is, "Is this how we should minister in the Lord's name?"

If you are working within the copyright laws in your church, congratulations. I believe God will honor and prosper your faithfulness. Well done, thou good and faithful servant. If you are not, or if you have a feeling that you are not, or if you choose to remain ignorant of the law, you and your congregation are at great legal and financial peril, and you are likely laboring under a cloud of self-imposed guilt that never goes away. You need to inform yourself and your people, find the time and means to do your ministry in the Lord's name legally, and be firm in your resolve to continue to do so. Copyright law has become a great burden to church musicians. We should do all we can to have the government lift that burden, but until that happens, we must bear it.

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