Copyright and religion: an idiot’s guide


An (Anglican) congregation posted on its website a poem of “sympathetically expressed religious thoughts in relation to human anxiety”. The church then received a demand from the publisher for £7,000 in compensation for breach of copyright. After three months’ stressful negotiation, the PCC paid £1,500 in an out-of-court settlement. The moral of the story is this: almost everything published since 1900 may possibly be copyright – and the newer the publication, the greater the likelihood that it is copyright material.

And because churches tend to use rather a lot of copyright material it is just as well to know the rules.

What is copyright?

Copyright is the intellectual property right belonging to the creators of original musical, literary and dramatic works. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 gives copyright owners economic and moral rights in their work – which means that they can charge anyone who wishes to copy, perform or record their work for any commercial or non-commercial use.

The basic rule for literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works is that copyright persists for 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last remaining author of the work dies. The UK Copyright Service has a useful fact-sheet which sets out the precise term for each type of publication or work under the 1988 Act.

Breach of copyright is illegal. It may result in:

  • an injunction/interdict to prevent repetition of the breach;
  • an order for payment of damages for past breaches; and
  • an order to pay the costs of the legal proceedings.

In general, it is no defence for those who are sued to argue that their copying or public performance was for church, charitable or other public purposes.

Copyright/intellectual property organisations

Copyright is managed on behalf of the copyright-owners by a vast array of collection societies, each with different functions. The most important for churches and charities are these:

  • PRS for Music (an amalgamation of the Performing Right Society and the Mechanical  Copyright Protection Society) licenses organisations to play, perform or make available copyright music on behalf of its members;
  • PPL (which used to be Phonographic Performances Ltd) licenses recorded music broadcast or played in public;
  • the Copyright Licensing Agency licenses organisations to copy and reuse extracts from print and digital publications on behalf of the copyright owner – the most obvious church use is photocopying copyright material.

It is likely, therefore, that a church or faith group will require a number of different licences to cover the range of activities normally undertaken that are subject to copyright, and it may be convenient to use the services of an organization such as Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) which can provide most of  these. However, it is important to note the exact scope of each licence and the items that are not covered.

Is a particular piece copyright or not?

Johann Sebastian Bach died in 1750 and all his music as he wrote it is long out of copyright. But if someone discovers a lost Bach motet, prepares a performing edition and publishes it, the resulting printed edition will be copyright. Similarly, if someone (William Walton and Leopold Stokowski come to mind) arranges one of Bach’s organ pieces for orchestra the arrangement will be copyright even though the original work is not. So you need to be very careful indeed before assuming that a particular piece is out of copyright.

Moreover, in (eg) a sound recording there may be several elements of copyright:

  • a copyright in that particular performance;
  • a separate copyright in the underlying musical composition;
  • a further separate copyright in the words; and, possibly
  • a further separate copyright in the musical arrangement.

Activities that may involve copyright issues

  • reproducing the words of hymns (eg in service sheets, or projected on a screen) to store them electronically and to print out the documents;
  • photocopying music or words from hymnbooks;
  • use of audio/visual recordings of music (eg at weddings);
  • performing live music or playing music from a sound recording;
  • photocopying from non-music publications and magazines for use in church activities; and
  • reproduction and electronic storage of copyrighted material such as photographs, songs, music, poems, literature and maps downloaded from the Internet.

Live music performed during “divine service” or at weddings or funerals is exempt. One of the organisations involved in the provision of licences to churches, and others, Christian Copyright Licensing International, states that in relation to its PRS for Music Church Licences, an “act of divine worship” “is generally taken to mean Sunday and mid-week congregational services, plus any other occasion, such as study groups or prayer meetings, where hymns and worship songs are sung”. However, it cautions that “having a hymn at the start of a social event, film night or youth club does not make that event an act of divine worship and a music performance licence may still be required if other music is performed”.

Some dos and don’ts

  • Do check that you have the correct, current licences for what you want to do.
  • Don’t merely assume that any picture on the Internet is fair game: it isn’t. If you need a photograph, either take it yourself or use something from the huge range available at Wikimedia Commons – which is what we always do on this blog. 
  • Do be careful with quotations: brief quotes are acceptable but long ones may involve breach of copyright. The UK Copyright Service states that “there is no magic figure or percentage that can be applied as each case must be viewed on its own merit”.
  • Don’t just assume that no-one will notice if you ignore the rules: pictures on the Internet are often watermarked electronically and organisations such as Getty Images (formerly the Hulton Picture Library) operate web-crawlers to look for unauthorised use. Similarly, the Copyright Licensing Agency has been known to send employees to carol services to check for unlicensed photocopying.

In short, don’t simply assume that just because something is old it is out of copyright – and do be careful.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Copyright and religion: an idiot’s guide" in Law & Religion UK, 31 October 2013,

7 thoughts on “Copyright and religion: an idiot’s guide

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  7. What about copyright of modern translations of the Bible? The authors stipulate how much can be copied at a time etc, but where is the specific right to “perform” the words from the pulpit? This existed in the Copyright Act 1988 as churches shared an exemption with other non-profit bodies. This exemption was withdrawn by the 2010 Amendment Regulations. Voluntary exemption for music-for-worship is granted by licensors, but nothing similar applies to the spoken word. Have I missed something or did the legislators miss something when they changed the law in 2010? We should have had a statutory copyright exemption for worship use as they have in the USA.

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