Copyright logoThe purpose of this guide is to provide non-technical information about some of the copyright issues facing congregations today. Sections were prepared for the United Church by copyright consultant Don Anderson. It is not a legal document, and congregations requiring legal advice should consult with qualified counsel.

In this guide, the term “author” refers to anyone who creates a work of art, whether a poem, a photograph, a painting, a song, etc. “Publisher” refers to a person who makes the work of art available to the public.

This guide to copyright for congregations has been adapted, with permission, for use in The Presbyterian Church in Canada.

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General Copyright Information

In our weekly worship, we praise, pray, teach and preach using poetry, stories, plays, music, paintings, photographs, film, banners, sculpture and architecture. Whether the art is created within or outside of the worshiping community, we should acknowledge its authors, and its authors should have some say in its use. Canadian laws reflect these principles and provide a framework for protecting the rights of those who create artistic works.

In publishing a work, the author establishes the terms for public availability (e.g., without charge, for sale or rent, the fees, how many copies are available, what kind of uses are permitted, etc.). The public does not have a right to distribute what belongs to someone else on terms other than those set by that person.

Christian communities recognize copyright as the law of the land but often lack adequate resources to trace copyright owners, obtain permission, and make the requested acknowledgement between the time when they plan worship and when the service takes place. Solutions to this issue include purchasing sets of worship resources such as hymn books, and subscribing to a licensing scheme. Even then, when a new congregational resource is developed (e.g., a choral or instrumental CD, a congregational outreach video, a web presence), questions arise about how to satisfy moral and legal obligations.

Does copyright law apply to churches?

Yes. Some particular needs of churches and other organizations such as schools and libraries are recognized explicitly in law, but in general the same rules apply to churches as to anyone else. Churches need to get permission, as do others, to photocopy, reproduce in bulletins, make transparencies, change the wording, project from a computer onto a screen or show a video clip.

What is not “In Copyright” and what is “In the Public Domain”?

Copyright subsists in a work during the lifetime of the author, through the end of the calendar year in which the author dies and for a period of 50 years following that year. If there are multiple authors, the same terms of copyright apply to the last surviving author. In cases where authorship is unknown or where it belongs to a corporate body, the rules are slightly different.

Copyright may not apply for a number of reasons: the place of citizenship of the author or the country of origin of the work may not be signatory to a treaty to which Canada is also a signatory; the term of copyright may have expired; or the owner of the copyright may have assigned the copyright to the public. In these cases, the work is said to be “in the public domain.” Extreme caution in the reproduction of public domain material is required because editors, composers, and others, when publishing such material, sometimes introduce their own alterations that are in copyright. For example, part of a text or harmonization may be in copyright while the melody and most of the words are not.

Congregations cannot legally photocopy, reproduce in bulletins, or use on overheads or a projection system material that is in copyright unless they get permission. In most cases, buying a book does not give the purchaser the right to make reprints in whole or in part. For example, most hymnals have explicit statements on the copyright page about conditions under which certain of the contents may be reproduced.

Hymns and Music Copyright in Online Worship Services

Hymn Database Search Page

Image of arrow pointing downSongs for Worship
Image of arrow pointing downBook of Praise Hymns in the Public Domain
Now that many congregations are offering online worship, leaders are asking questions about copyright for music used during live-streamed or pre-recorded services. The answers provided do not constitute legal advice as copyright law is complex, and it is difficult to address the many issues related to the use of music in online worship. It is the responsibility of those leading online worship to ensure that copyright law is not being violated.

Do we need a special copyright license to live stream the music portion of worship?

Yes. Synchronization rights are granted by the copyright owner of a piece of music, permitting its inclusion in an audio-visual production. These rights are commonly administered by copyright clearing houses, which offer master use copyright licenses that have live streaming licensing options. Two that are commonly used by Canadian churches are:

What about pre-recorded video or audio content that is being distributed for congregational use online (i.e., pre-recorded worship services that contain music)?*

Yes, you also need a copyright license to post pre-recorded worship services if they contain music. If you purchased a “Podcast/Streaming License” from a copyright clearing house, the word “podcast” normally refers to any pre-recorded video or audio content being distributed for congregational use. The Podcast/Streaming License usually permits both pre-recorded and live-streamed content, which means that content may be posted to your church’s website as well as on YouTube, Facebook, Zoom, Vimeo, Instagram and other Internet-based platforms. Be sure to check the terms of the license you have purchased to confirm that your live-streaming license also covers pre-recorded content.

*This answer is adapted from the One License website.

How do I know what types of broadcasts or recordings are allowed with live streaming licenses?

Copyright clearing houses have different terms and regulations, so it is important that you read the terms of the licensing agreement carefully. There are certain activities that are “permitted” under the license (e.g., live-streamed songs performed in your church services in audio and/or video format) and others that are “not permitted” (e.g., artist or record label recordings of songs). It is your responsibility to ensure that you are adhering to the terms set out in the license you have purchased. When in doubt, contact customer service at your license provider directly to ensure that how you are using music in your online services is permitted.

Do we need a live streaming license if we are leading worship over Zoom or another online meeting platform but not recording or posting it elsewhere afterwards?

If you are using copyrighted music, yes you do. An active streaming license is required to “digitally transmit” copyrighted music from your church’s website, a hosted website or a steaming platform.

Will this license permit our church to play artist or record label recordings of hymns or praise music?

No. This license would permit the musicians, choirs and bands at your church to perform and pre-record copyrighted material that is covered by the license for congregational use. It would not permit your congregation to stream artist or record label recordings of songs. For example, the license may give your worship band permission to live stream or record a performance of the song “10,000 Reasons,” but it does not permit you to play the original recording of “10,000 Reasons” sung by Matt Redman.

If you would like to stream artist or record label recordings of songs, you will need to seek out copyright permissions from the copyright owner directly.

What about YouTube videos of music? Can we show those during a live streamed or pre-recorded service with this license?*

Because so many videos are uploaded to YouTube without permission from the copyright holders, it is generally recommended that churches do not play music videos on YouTube during online worship. If you do choose to use a YouTube video during worship, be sure that it is on an official YouTube channel and you have permission from the copyright owner.

Music videos that show the song lyrics you can sing along to are increasingly common on YouTube. Often, such videos are uploaded to YouTube and then embedded on the publisher’s website with details of how they permit it to be used. If the description of the video on the publisher’s website or YouTube channel indicates that they intend it to be used in a church service, then this would constitute consent. However, if there is any doubt, contact the publisher or copyright owner for permission before showing the video.

*This answer is adapted from the One License website.

Image of arrow pointing downMusic Copyright in Online Worship

Are we allowed to stream or record songs from the Book of Praise for online worship?

If you are a PCC congregation and already own copies of the Book of Praise:

  • The hymns that are listed in the Book of Praise as being in the public domain can be streamed or recorded for the purpose of online worship. A list of the hymns from the Book of Praise that are in the public domain can be found here .
  • The hymns that list The Presbyterian Church in Canada as the copyright holder can also be streamed or recorded for worship purposes.

For hymns not in the public domain that have copyright holders other than The Presbyterian Church in Canada, you will need to obtain permission from the copyright holders. You can find copyright holder information at the back of the Book of Praise.

Are hymns from the Book of Praise covered by copyright clearing house licenses?

There are several companies that provide blanket permission for some—but not all—hymns and songs in the Book of Praise. Most copyright clearing houses have a search function on their website, where you can look up the hymns you are interested in using to see if they are covered by copyright license.

As aforementioned, you need a Podcast/Live Streaming copyright license to live stream or post recordings of hymns/worship music online.

Why doesn’t the PCC make a digital version of the Book of Praise that contains the necessary copyright permissions for online use?

The Presbyterian Church in Canada looked into the possibility of producing an electronic version and discovered that it would be far more expensive for congregations than the current book. The costs of the project would be huge in terms of negotiating additional fees and agreements with every copyright holder, ongoing fees, and administrative costs. Churches would have to buy a license for every congregant. It is much less expensive for a congregation to use a licensing service to reproduce copyrighted material.

What happens if the hymn from the Book of Praise that we want to use is not in the public domain, owned by the PCC, or covered by our copyright license?

You can attempt to track down the copyright holder yourself and ask if they will grant (in writing) permission for you to use the song for the purpose of online worship. This can be an onerous task, so it may be best to choose a hymn that is in the public domain, whose copyright is owned by the PCC, or is covered by the copyright license you’ve purchased.

We own a set of hymnals for the congregation. Can we make copies of a hymn for the church picnic?

No, not without permission. There may be any number of reasons why the medium in which a copyright work is published is inadequate to particular circumstances. If you need to transfer a hymn from a hymnal to another medium frequently, you should explore a licensing scheme.

Image of arrow pointing downLegality of Copying the Book of Praise

Can we change, add verses or alter the words of a hymn or praise song?

If the words of a song or hymn are copyrighted, the text cannot be changed without the permission of the copyright holder. While changing the words of a hymn or adding a verse may seem insignificant, changing the lyrics without permission will put you in violation of copyright and could lead to legal repercussions.

However, things are different for hymns or songs in the public domain. Some music leaders change the lyrics of hymns in the public domain to make the language of the songs reflective of their context or easier to understand. For instance, there are obvious benefits to changing “By Cool Siloam’s Shady Rill” to “By Cool Siloam’s Shady Pool.” Even though the verses of the hymn no longer rhyme as they used to, at least the singers know what they are singing about. And it may make lots of sense to change “shouldst” to “should,” and “thy” to “your” or to “God’s” if it clarifies the meaning of the hymn, nurtures the singer’s understanding and still scans well within the metre of the music.

This is a permitted practice with hymns in the public domain, but, as already mentioned, it is not permitted with hymns that are copyrighted.

May we make a Braille or Large-Print version of a hymn or prayer, a tape of the worship service for the blind, or a sign-language adaptation for the deaf without obtaining permission?

Yes to all, if there are no commercially available equivalents that meet the needs of the persons with perceptual disabilities. Use of this exemption coincidentally to serve the non-impaired would be an abuse of this exemption.

Who should we contact if we have a question about copyright and the Book of Praise?

If your question has not been answered in this resource, please check out:

If you cannot find the answer in one of these sources, please email Canadian Ministries.

Who should we contact if we have questions about copyright and music in general (i.e., using hymns and worship songs that are not from the Book of Praise)?

Copyright is a legal matter. Questions are best addressed to professionals with an expertise in copyright or the copyright clearing house that your church is using. Below is the customer service information for the two most used copyright clearing houses in Canada.

CCLI Customer Service

One License

Image of arrow pointing downMusic Copyright in Online Worship

Copyright for Films/Videos and Other Media

No one but the copyright holder has the right to show all or part of a work in public. This applies to showing films in any context other than in a home among family and friends. All public, private and commercial organizations that wish to present copyrighted commercially available movies or movie clips in a public place are required to obtain a license from the appropriate rights representative/collective society.

This applies even if presentations are:

  • for non-profit reasons (i.e., to show a film to a study group at the church)
  • screened free of charge
  • of films obtained from personal collections, retail or rental stores, or online distributors.

For example: A church showed a series of movies in their church hall for a movie night on a Friday evening. There was no charge, and popcorn and soft drinks were served. The evening was for church members and friends to gather for some fellowship. The videos were loaned by members of the church, borrowed from the local library and rented from the last remaining video store in town.

Consequently, the congregation received a call from a video distributor, who had learned of the church movie night through the church’s website. The distributor informed the congregation that, even though they did not charge admission fees, they had contravened the Copyright Act since the congregation did not obtain a license to show the movies or clips in church. Through this correspondence, the congregation learned that companies license movie studios differently (such as Walt Disney Pictures, Paramount Pictures, MGM Studios and the like) and that there is no distinction between showing a 10-second clip and a full movie. In all cases a license is required. The congregation decided to comply with the law by purchasing a public performance license from the appropriate company and was thus not fined. However, the congregation could have incurred a substantial cost. According to the law, the fine could be $500 to $20,000 per infringement.

Some films are sold to distributors for resale with public performance rights included. Where such rights are included in the purchase, you would have purchased the right to screen the film in public according to the terms of a license issued by the rights owner. Most videos sold by educational vendors have public performance rights. Most videos sold or rented by non-educational vendors (i.e., your local video store) do not have public performance rights included in the original price.

The Canadian Motion Picture Distributors Association directs you to obtain public performance licenses, where required and where they are available through a third party, from collective societies  that administer the rights of several copyright owners. These societies can grant permission to use works and set the conditions for their use. Buying a license from a collective society is the most efficient way to ethically and lawfully use resources without infringing copyright laws or being fined.

Significant collective societies in Canada for film are Audio Ciné Films Inc. , the exclusive licensing representative for Canada for many mainline studios, and Criterion Pictures , which represents other studios.

Christian Video Licensing International (CVLI) is a copyright collection agency that serves faith-based organizations. With a CVLI license, churches can choose films from over 300 producers and distributors.

Useful information on available videos and their owners and distributors also is provided by Canadian Video Services, Inc. . You could also contact a studio directly if the rights for the film you wanted to show were not available through these third parties.

Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI)  has negotiated a blanket license through The Motion Picture Licensing Corporation that can be obtained relatively inexpensively to cover the public performance of films by certain studios in a licensed church. You must examine the list of film studios represented by this agreement carefully to understand whether the films covered by the license would be useful in your preaching, teaching or recreational programs.

Dramatic works that are in copyright are protected by public performance rights. You will need to obtain permission from a clearing house such as Samuel French, Inc.  to perform the work. The clearing house will need to know details about your intended performance, such as your organization and address, place of performance, size of hall, ticket prices if applicable, number of performances and dates, whether you are a non-profit organization, and whether an actors’ union is involved.

May we include photographs or videos of other artistic works in a presentation?

Yes, in limited cases. You may make a painting, drawing, photograph, engraving, or video of 1) a piece of architecture, or 2) a sculpture or piece of artistic craftsmanship (finely designed products that are typically mass produced, such as chairs) as long as your work is not an architectural drawing of the piece of architecture and the objects reproduced are situated permanently in a public place or building (e.g., a museum or gallery). To make a copy of any sort of another artistic work that is in copyright, such as a photograph or painting, requires permission of the copyright owner.

Are photographs themselves protected by copyright?

Yes. If you make a photographic negative or positive, you own the copyright to that photograph. For individually owned photographs, the term of copyright protection is identical to that of music or words—lifetime of the photographer plus the balance of the year in which the photographer dies/died and 50 years beyond that. Where the photograph is owned by a corporation, the copyright is limited to the period from the date of the making of the photograph through the end of that calendar year plus 50 years more.

May I use someone else’s photograph of an 18th-century painting without permission?

No. Contact the photographer or the owner of the rights to the photograph. You do not need to contact the owner of the painting. It is not a violation of copyright law to photograph, sketch, or copy an object that is itself out of copyright.

Treat the Internet as if it were a very large book that has not been carefully edited. The owners of a website might not have done their homework, and you could be liable for civil damages if you reprint copyrighted material without permission of the owner of the material. Avoid using any Internet content that does not have clear assertions about where it came from, the names of the authors and their affiliation. Avoid posting (republishing) audio or video clips that you have not carefully verified for copyright status and cleared with the owner.

Annual Licenses and Copyright Holders

An alternative to seeking permission from individual copyright holders every time you need to use copyrighted music is to obtain an annual license from a licensing agency. If you find you frequently need to use copyrighted music or worship material, you may want to consider going this route. For an annual fee, usually based on the size of congregation, a congregation can use a wide range of copyrighted material. The congregation periodically reports the items it uses to the licensing agency. There is no universal licensing scheme that would cover all of the items you want to use, however, so you will need to understand the scope of any license you purchase and the range of needs of your congregation before signing a contract.

Before buying a license, you need to understand the specific limitations as to material covered by it, permitted uses and record-keeping required. LicenSing  (follow the links under “Church Music”), an international collective representing a broad range of mainstream Christian worship music, and Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) , focusing on more popular music, are widely used in Canada by congregations that frequently wish to use copyrighted material. The coverage offered by CCLI, while extensive and mainstream, does not include the hymns owned by some major publishers. One License  includes many significant publishers of hymn texts, hymn tunes and songs for worship and offers podcast rights.

What does it cost?

As a rough guide, the cost of two to three individual permission fees (ranging from no charge to $25 U.S., with an average of $25 U.S.) would be equivalent to the licensing fee for a small congregation. Whether you buy a license or handle permissions yourself, there is administration involved. Buying a license involves reporting the music used; individual copyright permissions involve paperwork, but more than for a license.

Another option is to plan for several specific items to be used over the course of a year and to obtain permission for these on a case-by-case basis, rather than purchasing “blanket” coverage. For an item you want to use frequently (for example, an offertory hymn), offer the publisher a flat fee to include it in a congregational collection or to use it every Sunday on an overhead.

How you handle copyright will be determined in part by your congregation’s worship style: Frequent use of video clips may require an annual video public performance license or access to a library of public performance rights included (PPRI) videos; contemporary worship may require frequent use of new, popular songs, which might indicate a CCLI license, etc. Do not be afraid to ask publishers or collectives the best way to support your program. They will try to accommodate your needs.

CCLI Customer Service

One License

Finding Copyright Holders

The main problem congregations face in obtaining permission to use any copyright work is finding the owners. Since ownership of works can be shared, the use (copying, recording, synchronizing, etc.) of a work can involve contacting several individuals or publishers. Both can be difficult to locate, or even to identify. Resources that can help in the search are, in logical order:

  1. The last known publisher. Publishers are generally good record keepers and, when approached with courtesy and sufficient time, will make every effort to help you contact the right parties. Publishers often know other publishers, so don’t hesitate to ask the wrong publisher when you are unsure of the right one. If you have difficulty finding the publisher, do an Internet search of the publisher’s name or contact your local library, where expert searchers will usually be able to provide you with a phone or fax number. Be prepared to supply all details, including the authors and editors. Sometimes a publisher will be known by association with certain writers, graphic artists, or musicians.
  2. Publishers’ associations such as the Music Publishers’ Association of the United States  are useful resources. The Canadian equivalent is the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers (SOCAN) .
  3. For recorded music, the large international catalogues maintained by BMI  and UMG  can help in finding the appropriate agency address.
  4. For dramatic works performance rights, a major clearing house is Samuel French, Inc. .

When Copyright Is Violated

When an author’s copyright is infringed, the author is entitled to civil remedies, including such remedies as compensatory, exemplary, or punitive damages (money) from the infringer. Criminal penalties may apply if the infringer sells or rents the illegal copies, or distributes illegal copies to such an extent that the owner of the copyright is affected prejudicially.

Frequently Asked Questions

A very long time if your event, production schedule or release date is imminent. A survey of copyright resource websites indicates that four to eight weeks will normally elapse between requesting permission and receiving it. The time required for particular requests varies from a few minutes to weeks and months (when a request is misdirected, or a publisher or individual cannot respond in a timely way). It will speed up your response if you ensure that your request is complete and accurate, and includes the name of the item for which you are seeking copyright, the author, the source and page number (e.g., name of a hymn book), and information on how you want to use the item.

Small parts of copyright works may be copied “for the purposes of research or private study.” Educational institutions, archives, libraries and museums also hold specific exemptions. Ordinary congregational worship activities, however, do not provide a context for “fair use” of copyrighted material.

You need the permission of the author to make an arrangement, translation, versification, change the wording or to include the work, in whole or in part, in another larger work. So, for example, if you include a photo in a slide show or music in a video, you should seek the author’s permission. While authors have the right to retain the copyright over derivatives of their works, such as translations, they may permit the translator or arranger to claim copyright over the derivative. In this case, subsequent use of the work as arranged, translated, etc., requires permission from both the author and the arranger.

The author is not the owner once the author assigns the copyright to someone else, or when the work is created by the author on commission or in the normal course of employment for the use of the employer. It is understood that unless an employee has a specific agreement permitting retention of copyright, the ownership will be vested in the employer.

Recording rights expire 50 years after the end of the calendar year in which the performance occurred, or in which the performance was recorded or broadcast.

No, not in principle. In recent years, printed material that used to be purchased in quantity often has been reproduced with photocopiers, depriving the publisher and author of any incentive to offer more material. Single copies of audio, video or still images have been burned onto CDs, posted to the Web and transmitted around the world.

Many Christian writers, composers and other artists have embraced the new technology and are enthusiastic about the ways in which they can reach others more immediately and directly than ever before.

While the distribution medium has changed, the principle of copyright has not. Authors and publishers have websites with interactive permission forms, order forms and contact information. Even when a work is offered to the public without charge and without obligation to contact or notify the author, the author retains a moral right not to have the work defaced, bowdlerized, taken out of context, text altered or used to sell a product or service. For example, many authors want to know, before they give permission for the reprinting of their songs or the recording of their music, how the music will look, who the performers are, what other material is accompanying their works.

Other Copyright Resources

Your primary resource for understanding the law and regulations must be the Copyright Act , including various amendments. The administration of regulations and dissemination of information about intellectual property in Canada has been brought together within the Canadian Intellectual Property Office , a branch of Industry Canada.

The Canadian Copyright Board has a rich set of resources in English and French. In Québec, rights for reproduction of books, newspapers and periodicals are administered by Société québécoise de gestion collective des droits de reproduction .

The Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency represents many authors and publishers.