Copy Right!: Is your church guilty of music piracy?

© Consider the following scenario: Your worship planning team is planning a service. Everything goes smoothly until it comes to selecting the hymns. Your pew hymnal just doesn't have a song that will go along with the service's theme. Finally someone in your group picks up another hymnal and comes across just the right hymn. Everyone agrees. "Let's print it in the bulletin," one member of your group suggests. "How about using an overhead?" another says. "Do we have to get permission?" wonders still another.

The conversation stops. How can you tell if you need permission or not? Who do you contact? Will it cost money? Is it possible to get permission by next Sunday? Now what? ...

At least in this committee the question was asked. For too long churches have been ignoring their responsibility to the law. Congregations who eagerly learned new songs claimed little knowledge of copyrights. But ignorance is no excuse. The new songs and hymns that we so enthusiastically sing are offered to the churches by composers and publishers who have made an investment in order to make these songs available. We in the church should honor that investment as we benefit from these new songs in our worship. In determining what is or isn't legal, I have found the following principle most helpful:

You may not make copies of a copyrighted song if by doing so you are avoiding purchase of the song in its published form—be it sheet music, anthem, another hymnal, or something you found (legally or illegally) in another church bulletin.

First of all, you need to determine if a song is under copyright. Let's apply the principle by asking questions that worship leaders should know the answers to before they use songs not found in their pew hymnal.

What is copyright? Are all songs under copyright?

"Copyright" is a means whereby a song or other creation can be protected for a given time. Both international and national copyright laws protect the use of these creations. After a given number of years, a work ceases to be protected by law and enters the "public domain" (PD)—in other words, it belongs to the public. Generally speaking, if something predates this century, it is PD. Any PD song may be copied without obtaining permission.

How can I determine if something is under copyright?

Publishers are required to clearly state which songs are under copyright. However, some publishers do so more clearly than others. Older hymnals placed a notice or acknowledgements section at the front of the book. More recently the trend has been to provide such information directly on the song page and/or in the back of the book. The Psalter Hymnal (1987), for example, provides information on the song page and also gives complete addresses and phone numbers in the "Copyright Holders" index at the back. In individual choral and organ pieces and sheet music the copyright notice is generally placed on the bottom of the first page of music.

Copyrights are indicated by the copyright symbol © or the phrase "Used by permission of ..."

Is just music under copyright, or are the texts also?

Texts are also creations under the protection of copyright law. In fact, the text, tune, and the harmonization of a tune may all be copyrighted. It is possible for three different publishers to share copyrights to a single hymn. It is also possible that just one element of a song (e.g., the text) be under copyright while the other parts are in the public domain.

If something is under copyright, how do I get permission to use it?

For a few examples, consider the three songs chosen for the "Hymn of the Month" in this issue of RW.

The credits on the bottom of the page indicate that the text of "I Love the Lord" (p.31) is owned by CRC Publications. The tune and harmonization list no copyright: in other words, the music belongs to the public; it's PD. Therefore, while no permission is needed to photocopy the music, permission is needed to copy the text. Since CRC Publications owns this text as well as publishes Reformed Worship, we gladly give subscribers permission to copy this song for their use.

For the other two songs, different copyright owners are involved. We obtained permission from both of them to reprint the music in RW. But we received different answers to our request to let our subscribers make copies for their use as well.

Both text and music for "The Lord Is Risen, Yes, Indeed!" (p. 32) are owned by Paideia Press, and they granted our request to print the song in RWand to extend permission to our suscribers to use the song in worship.

The text for "Eternal Spirit, God of Truth" (p. 34) is PD. We did not need permission to print it and you do not need permission to print it in your bulletin. The music (both pages), however, is owned by Oxford University Press, and although they gave us permission to print it in RWthey did not extend that permission to our suscribers. Therefore subscribers who wish to use this music have the following options:

a. To use the hymn version on page 34: If you do not have the 1987 Psalter Hymnal, simply print the text in your bulletin, and the organist can play directly out of RW. The melody is familiar to most congregations.

b. To use the alternative accompaniment and descant on page 35: Again, the organist can play directly out of RW, but choir directors must get permission to make copies for choir members who want to sing the descant. Either use a form letter request (see box in back cover) or simply call Oxford for permission.

Our church is small: we're all busy, we don't have a big budget or a church secretary, and we just don't have the time for all this correspondence. How much does all this cost? Aren't there any shortcuts?

For using a given song in worship on one Sunday, the cost is your phone call (or stamp) and perhaps a small fee (seldom more than $10.00), depending on the type of use, number of copies, and so on. To make it easier for everyone, some publishers provide annual license agreements. For an annual fee, churches may use all the songs owned by that publisher.

Recently, an entire company was developed for the purpose of making permissions as hassle-free and economical as possible. Christian Copyright Licencing, Inc. (CCLI) now handles permission requests from churches to well over two hundred publishers. For an annual fee (based on church size), churches can keep track of what they use and let CCLI work with the publishers. For a brochure, call or write:

Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc.
6130 NE 78th Ct., Suite C 11
Portland, OR 97218
(800) 234-2446

We often print songs in our bulletin, and we get permission to do so. But I find it awkward to print a copyright acknowledgement by the text. That seems obtrusive in our worship. Must I print an acknowledgement if I indeed have the permission?

Yes, you should print an acknowlegement as stipulated by the copyright holder. But you may use smaller print, or place the information at the bottom of the page or at the end of the printed service rather than by the text.

I would like to print the texts to our choral music in the bulletins so the congregation can clearly understand and reflect on the text while we are singing it. May I do that?

Unfortunately, the answer is not a simple one, though the practice should be encouraged. If the song is under copyright, permission is necessary. That is one reason so many composers use old (PD) texts rather than bother with copyrights. When writing for Psalter Hymnal permissions, we also asked for permission "for one-time bulletin use for churches who have purchased the new hymnal provided proper credit is given." More than fifty copyright owners gave their permission (see the list in "Introducing the 2987 Psalter Hymnal," p. 60, which was sent with every church order). That will cover some hymn texts the choir might sing. For other texts, churches should use a form letter (see box in back cover) to request permission.

I am a choir director, and our choir sometimes sings out of our hymnal. But I don't want them writing notes and directions in our books. May I make copies of copyrighted hymns for them?

As long as you have bought a copy of the hymnal for each of your choir members, you are not avoiding purchase by making copies. But you should still request permission. Many publishers grant those who have purchased a hymnal permission to reproduce their copyrighted material at no extra charge.

Sometimes a choral piece is out of print, so I cannot buy copies. Do I still need permission to photocopy?

Yes. Write the publisher for permission.

Do I need permission to make transparencies or song charts?

Yes, but if the song appears in your pew hymnal, you have already purchased the right to use the song. In such a case, publishers often grant permission at no extra charge.

I am an soloist, and sometimes page turns are hard to negotiate. May I make a copy of a page from my book in order to prevent an awkward page turn?

Yes, as long as you have purchased a book. A publisher should not require an organist to purchase two copies of a book.

I am a soloist. Do I have to buy a separate copy for my accompanist, or may one of us use a photocopy?

If two copies are needed for performance, two copies should be purchased. It is the soloist's responsibility to provide a second copy for the accompanist.

What kind of records of permissions should we keep?

One person should keep a "Copyright Permissions" file, including records of correspondence and phone calls.

Emily R. Brink ( is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.


Reformed Worship 18 © December 1990, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.