A Copyright Crash Course for Churches

David Middlebrook, Founding Shareholder of Church Law Group, spoke at the XPastor Conference held in Dallas, Texas in February, 2014. He referenced the ongoing conversation about intellectual property rights of pastors, worship leaders and others who work for the church–even volunteers. (See Christianity Today – Who Owns the Pastor’s Sermon?)


Middlebrook “joked” that more felonies are committed on Saturday nights at the church copier than anywhere else. We want to share a summary of his instruction on the topic of copyrights, which every church staff member should be aware of:

What is copyrighted? EVERYTHING fixed in tangible form – even without an official copyright

Copyright Infringement: violating the owner’s right by using the property without permission

Copyright Infringement has a strict liability: Ignorance = no excuse

Dispelling Myths About Fair Use Laws (a narrow set of limitations/exceptions to copyright laws, including commentary, search engines, criticism, parody, news reporting, research, teaching, and library archiving):

  • There is no innocent infringement defense
  • There is no blanket exemption for churches/non-profits
  • The FBI warning (home use only) applies to videos at church. Church is not home.
  • There is no “10-second-or-less” rule, or “100-words-or-less” rule
  • It’s not okay to display words and lyrics (without music), even handwritten in marker
  • A blanket license is not equal to broadcast rights (applies to streaming services)
  • Educational Fair Use laws apply to schools – not church or “Sunday School”
  • Religious Service Exemptions do not apply to secular music

Based on the increase of lawsuits and complications that have arisen when ministry leaders begin to profit from the intellectual property they created while with a church, Middlebrook’s conclusion about the issue is that churches must have a comprehensive Intellectual Rights Policy in place PRIOR TO EMPLOYMENT, in order to:

  • Protect the church
  • Foster creativity
  • Clarify respective rights of all
  • Avoid IP lawsuits

What you don’t know can hurt you! We encourage you to browse the Church Law Group site, watch free videos, and read 7 Building Blocks, a series of blog posts on the seven critical areas for building a 21st Century Church. Contact the Church Law Group for your church’s legal needs.

Fellowship One is a partner with Church Law Group through the Partners in Church Consulting (PCC) Network.