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The Church and Illegal Goods

by Tim Knutson

What if I were to tell you that most churches are not only in possession of a large number of illegal goods, but participate in the creation and distribution of these goods? And that most of these illegal goods are stored in the churches' file cabinets and are distributed quite often by church staff or approved volunteers?

Would you be alarmed if I told you that the ministerial and office staff of these churches takes one of two positions on these illegal goods? One position claims ignorance because of legal language and overbearing, burdensome government, and the other position is a tad belligerent about it, knowing that their actions may be questionable, but refusing to budge on the grounds that, "It is ridiculous" and "They just want more money."

What if I also told you that I once was wholeheartedly involved in this production and distribution and that most likely you or someone you know is also involved?

Now that I've got your attention, let me open up the subject under consideration: Church music and copyright laws. The illegal goods? Copies of sheet music.

Can I get a collective "Ugh!" here?

I firmly believe that most pastors and their church members are not interested in participating in anything illegal; however, I am also quite familiar with the whole "cutting-every-corner-possible-to-save-more-money" angle. As a staff member and now pastor, I have been part of many church building and remodeling projects that quickly reveal that more attention and more money paid many years ago would have saved a lot of heartache and financial grief for us today. So, perhaps this short reminder will help us learn the importance of paying attention to the details with our church music so that future generations won't pay the cost for our ignorance or inattention.

Since most churches do try to be in compliance with state and federal laws, your church likely pays a yearly fee to a company called Christian Copyright Licensing International or CCLI. This is a wonderful thing to do, and, if your church is not doing it, I would start doing it as of last week.

Beginning with this idea, let's talk about the CCLI license.

The most common use associated with a CCLI license is "copying." However, it is "copying" by how laws and CCLI define it, not how we typically think of it. The common phrase associated with the term "copyright," it seems, is "that means you can copy right out of it."

That may have passed for acceptable humor in the '70s and '80s when the convoluted copyright laws were not well published, not as refined, and not as prevalent in small church circles, but it is now more or less a sign of arrogant ignorance. You need to spend some time understanding what it is and is not, so that it won't cost your church greatly later on.

What a CCLI License Is Not

I'm sure some of you are wondering by now, "So what can I do with this copyright license?"

You can sing!

This may come as a surprise to you, but most performers outside of a church setting have to pay royalties, etc., to the owner of the song every time they perform that song, even if they are playing the music themselves on their own guitar. However, according to U.S. Copyright Law section 110 (3), songs sung or performed during a church service are typically free from this requirement.1 Hallelujah, right?

Some of the More Common Issues

Sheet music

According to CCLI's website, your church may make copies of sheet music only to assist in congregational singing.

If your choir is singing, practicing or reviewing a song, each member must be holding an approved, paid-for version of the music in their hands. This, many times, means that you need to purchase an actual copy of the music for each person using the music, including instrumentalists. The only exception to this rule is if the owner of the song (not always the author) has given you permission (which typically you have paid for) to copy this music. The owner will give you a very specific phrase and possibly number to stamp or write on the front page of EACH piece of music.2

If you have a group learning a song, each member of that group must be holding an original, purchased, copy of the music in their hands if they are holding music, whether practice or performance.3 Now, of course, if they are learning this from listening to it, then you only need to be sure each group member is using a purchased copy of the audio file.

Some may ask, "Can I buy 25 copies of this music for my choir, and make copies for them to practice from so the originals don't get damaged?" According to Entertainment Lawyer Gordon Firemark, "I'm sorry, but this is a no-go. When you buy a printed copy of sheet music, you get the right to do certain things like read, study, and practice the music. But what you don't get is the right to make additional copies...even if you plan to destroy them later.

"It's copyright infringement, plain and simple. If you get caught, the consequences can be significant."4

Essentially what this means is, have a budget for choir music and purchase your music. It also means it's time to go through your church file cabinets and destroy any copies of sheet music that aren't clearly marked as "Copied by Permission." Go ahead, buy some hot dogs and have a bonfire.

CDs, MP3s, Podcasts, and PowerPoint slides

So you record your services, and by standard practice make five CDs at the end of the service, convert one to an mp3 for your website and also upload to iTunes or SermonAudio as a podcast, etc. Congrats! You have now entered the realm of what CCLI covers in your church's yearly payment.

That is a "copy." CCLI defines the word "copy" to mean "any duplication, reproduction, or re-creation of the words and/or musical notation of a song."

This covers every CD, every printed sheet, every photocopied sheet, every transparency for an overhead, every projected image containing the song words, every file where the words/music will be permanently stored, (like a PowerPoint file with tons of kids' songs on it), every audio, and/or video recording, and, yes, even if you rearrange the song to your own style and print it for your groups/choirs (even translations to different languages).5

Now, something must be said here because everyone is thinking, "See, we CAN copy our music on the copier!"

Still the answer is no; the above is merely a definition. The only songs that may be copied on the copier are from congregational songbooks that are approved by the song owner for congregational use. "Music from any type of an arrangement book (choral, instrumental, solo, quartet, etc.) may not be copied."6

It is important to understand that every church that has a CCLI license has a required "reporting period." This time period comes every 2 1/2 years or so and generally lasts 6 months. You get a letter in the mail stating that your church's reporting period has arrived and they offer very convenient options for online reporting.

These reports are where you tell CCLI what songs were "copied" with all the pertinent information: title, author, publisher, etc. You are to report how
many of each copy you have made, whether printed, recorded, videoed, etc. These reports are required and, based upon your usage and your church attendance, CCLI will determine your required payment.

If you have not reported, then you are most likely not paying the appropriate amount for your copyright license, CCLI pays various song owners the appropriate amounts so you don't have to. So, if you are not reporting, at the very least the proper song owners are not being paid the appropriate amount or worse.

CCLI Is Not Blanket Coverage

Paying CCLI your license fees and properly reporting does not free you from all responsibilities. CCLI only covers the song owners who list themselves with CCLI. So, while CCLI has a pretty broad coverage for churches of our stripe, they don't cover everything. For instance, many of the songs by author Gary Duty, The Blood Is Still There, Do You Know How It Feels, Either Him or Me, and many others are being sung across our churches, and the CCLI license does not cover their usage because they do not cover all of Gary Duty's songs.

Which brings up a very good point: there are many good songwriters even in our own circles who have chosen not to get involved in the whole royalties and copyright maze. Please don't take advantage of their generosity! If they have been a blessing to you, what's wrong with being a monetary blessing to them? Send them a love offering! If you are unsure if a song requires copyright royalty fees, look them up on CCLI's website or a website called ASCAP.com.

So remember, your responsibility doesn't end when you complete your reporting and payments to CCLI. Just because you are paying for a license by no means indicates that you are complying with all copyright laws.

The Consequences

Let me be clear, I am not forecasting doom and gloom. I am not predicting a massive sting operation against churches and their illegal goods. However, it still remains that these actions are illegal. There are, of course, penalties associated with these actions: monetary, seizure, injunctions, etc., but imprisonment is not out of the question for repeat offenders.7 I know many Baptists would gladly suffer the punishment of jail for preaching the Gospel, but why would they gladly submit to a punishment over a $4 piece of sheet music?

Why It Is important

So what's the big deal? Why do we have to go through all this fuss and nonsense? Because it is right. Because it is good. Because it is honest.

Somewhere, somebody sat down and penned the words that flowed from their heart. They considered the meaning of the words. They counted out syllables and searched endlessly for other possible words. They spent time at a piano or holding a guitar listening to themselves sing the words and trying to make it flow. They worked at it. They worked and put together a song that God used to be a blessing to you. It was their effort and their time that created that song and put it to the written page.

You need to be aware that when you buy a piece of sheet music you do not "own that song." You have merely purchased a license to USE that song as it was presented by the owner. According to U.S. law, the moment a song made it to paper or was recorded somewhere, it became the property of the person who penned it. The law properly recognizes that intellectual property is clearly the same as physical property, even more so in that no submission is required for it to be 'copyrighted."

Imagine that you are in the bathroom one day and come up with an amazing idea for a new shower handle. You think it through, ask your engineer buddy a few questions, talk to your local plumber, and decide it is a great idea. You then approach a well-known bathroom fixture company with your idea. They take your paperwork, tell you what a great idea it is, shake your hand, and say goodbye with a heartfelt thanks. A couple months later you find out that your idea has been developed and marketed by the company and soon the local installers can't keep up with the demand for the new product. YOUR product! You sit by the phone anxiously awaiting a call, you check the mail every day looking for a check, you watch the commercials hoping for at least a small recognition that this was YOUR idea, not theirs. The call never comes, the check never comes, and you feel ripped off and start looking for your lawyer's phone number. You were cheated, and the company DOES owe you money and recognition. You would feel justified and others would back you up.

Consider the following verses prayerfully:

Romans 13: 7-10

"Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour. Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law..."

Romans is quite clear when it says that we are to render unto others what is due to them. That we are not to owe them anything. That we are not to steal.

When a church makes a copy of a piece of music that it doesn't have the rights to, it is not paying the proper dues and "honour" to the owner of that song. The church is left "owing'' that owner in the eyes of the U.S. Government and has effectively stolen the money from the songwriter in the eyes of God.

Want to really get messed up? These same general principles apply in many other commonly used areas of the church, photos off of the Internet, or the software on your computer. Just do the right thing. Purchase what you are going to use from an appropriate source.

Pastor, music director, church musician, singer, it's time to get rid of the mountains of "illegal goods" we are storing in our file cabinets and our choir notebooks, and selling in our bookstore. Let's stop using legalese and time involved as an excuse. Give honor to whom honor is due. Stop trafficking in illegal goods.


Used with permission of Tim Knutson, Pastor of Jerome Bible Baptist Church, Idaho. Previously published in The Global Baptist Times, Vol. 16, Issue 4, July-August, 2016.

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