Church Copyright Law


We all know about copyrights, correct? Sure, it’s just something that protects things, right? Well, as a pastor, you need to know about copyrights because you probably violate them on a regular basis, and you create a new copyrightable work every weekend. Now, if they are so easy to create and so easy to violate, you should understand them. Copyrights are intended to protect various forms of content creation; one small example is the written or recorded word. Another example is a song; both the lyrics and the musical performance are copyrighted works of the author.  What this means is that if you are presenting words on a screen on Sunday, you need to be paying the copyright holders for their works. I recommend using a service like CCLI to assist you with licensing the song material for your worship services.
On the other side of the coin, you are also generating copyright material when you preach your sermons. When an audio or video recording of your message is created, you immediately hold a copyright to that. The one whose content is recorded holds the copyright, so to be clear, the pastor individually has created and now owns this right, not the church who is recording it.  Many churches struggle with this concept, but in law, it is the content creator who owns the work, and unless the pastor has licensed the work to the church, it is the pastor who holds the copyright on the message delivered during the service.

I have had many situations where this became important. For example, when figuring out who is selling copies of the message on physical media (CD’s, DVD’s or yes, even audio tapes), these products sold by the “church bookstore” should pay a royalty to the copyright holder, the pastor, for his content. Now it seams foreign to most that the church should have to “pay” the pastor for what they already “pay” him for.  I mean, the church pays a salary to the pastor and part of his duties are to preach on Sunday, right? So why do we need to pay a royalty for the same thing he already gets paid for? The simple answer is because it is the law.  As a church, you do not have to pay the pastor a copyright royalty for preaching live in the service, but you need to pay him for the content when it is sold on another medium (Audio, Video, or Transcription).
Counterintuitive or not, churches are constantly violating this right held by the pastors or those who preach during their weekly worship services. A church should either establish a method for counting and compensating a pastor for his work, or they should establish an agreement with the pastor (and any other speaker who preaches) that the work done is “work for hire,” meaning the copyright holder is assigning those rights directly to the church. This can be done on a permanent basis for a senior pastor or a teaching pastor, or it can be done when a guest speaker comes and preaches. Either way, the work for hire form must be completed prior to the distribution of the work.  Click here for the post “Three Things Every Church Should Communicate with a Guest Speaker.”
Once your church has decided how it is going to handle the copyrighted work of its worship services, put a plan in place and follow it. If you use a simple table, you will know how to account for the sales and can agree how these will be handled. I know a church that makes this part of the senior pastor’s end of year bonus. They simply take how many messages were preached and how many copies of those messages were sold in the bookstore and multiply that number by their agreed upon royalty rate. (There is no predetermined rate for this. It is just what is agreed upon between the church and the pastor).
How does your church handle copyrights that are created by your pastor?


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