How to...Copyright Right

You’ve been asked to obtain permission to reprint songs for your bulletin, Christmas program, liturgy, or Bible-study song sheets. Or maybe you want to copy the text of the choir’s anthem in the bulletin, make overhead transparencies of songs for your congregation, or copy a special theme song into the church newsletter . . . and you wonder how to do this legally.

Our music and liturgy office receives many calls from frantic worship committee people know that copyright permission is needed to reprint the text or music of a song. The primary question they ask is, Where do I begin to do this legally? It sounds both overwhelming and insignificant at the same time. The message often seems to be, Do I really need to waste my time doing this?

The answer is yes! Worship texts and music are creations offered to us by composers and publishers to enhance our worship. Like other gifts we give, these may have to be purchased. Copyrighting is a legal matter that, therefore, makes this a conscionable and moral issue to the churches. It is about the ownership of property and rightful compensation to composers and authors for their work.

Where to Begin

  • Consider any © sign or copyright information a “No Trespassing” sign. Be aware that you had better not tread there or reprint the song until you obtain the legal right to do so.
  • Read the copyrighted information for both the texts and music. Often it is written right on the page; however, with older printed matter, the information may be at the beginning or the end of the hymnal or songbook. If you cannot find any copyright information, the song is probably public domain—in other words, the copyright has expired and is freely available to the public.
  • If the song is under copyright, you need to obtain permission to make copies of it. There are two ways to do this:
  1. Call or write the publisher yourself to receive permission (and pay the individual royalty fee).
  2. Obtain an annual license from a copyright company, which will handle your permission requests for you. Two companies offer this service: CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc.), 1-800-234-2446, and LicenSing, 1-800-328-0200.

Both companies provide churches with an annual list of publishers for whom they administer copyrights.

  • Churches are asked to keep a record of songs used by their congregation. Every two-and-a-half years the license company requests that list and uses it to pay the individual publishers.
  • This is not a blanket license. When choosing songs for worship, check the list of publishers and call the license company if you have any questions. If a song your congregation wants to use is not covered by this license, you must seek permission directly from the publisher.
The Transparency Question

Our music and liturgy office also gets many calls about the use of overhead transparencies, slides, and other visual projections. What many churches don’t realize is that there is a visual layout all overheads should follow:

  • The title of the song should be on top of the page.
  • Underneath that should be the name of the author.
  • The text follows.
  • Copyright information should be at the bottom of the page in a smaller type size.
  • It should be followed by your license number, if you have one, or with “Used by permission” (after you have contacted the publisher for said permission, of course).
A Menu for Any Diet

Don’t let the copyright issue deter you from choosing good music for your worship needs. If you get into a routine for obtaining copyright permissions, you’ll find it becomes easier and easier to do.

Selecting music is an exciting part of planning worship. Compare it to going to a restaurant and choosing from a menu suitable for any diet. You can order anything you wish—be it six different courses or one main entrée (and lots of it!). That’s what worship planners encounter—a huge menu of songs from which they must select the different “diets” or styles of music for the congregation. If the song is in public domain, consider the meal already paid for. But usually you’ll need to figure out how to pay for your selections—or you may end up washing dishes for a long time!

Deanne R. Commeret was the copyrights and permissions administrator for the Education, Worship, and Evangelism Department of CRC Publications.


Reformed Worship 53 © September 1999, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.