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.
Music 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.
Legality 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
Music Copyright in Online Worship