Keeping it legal

Copyright.  That word produces any number of reactions, all dressed up as a yawn.  One yawn comes from the conscientious administrator who has to block out a day or two to fill out the returns booklet.  Another yawn comes from the person who knows nothing about it and doesn’t really care.  Another comes from someone writing an article about it, and another from the reader of that article.


Whatever we think about copyright, the law has certainly tightened up on this over the last few years and I’m pretty sure that many churches are (in most cases unwittingly) breaking that law.  As gospel-loving Christians we need to be subject to the authorities on this.


It’s quite an easy thing to get sorted – The Christian Copyright Licensing International organization sees itself as the ‘one stop’ copyright resource for the Church.  Its existence has eased many consciences all over the world about this matter by helping us to be legal.  It can be expensive, but CCLI was set up because of a $2 000 000 lawsuit taken out against the Chicago Diocese for copyright breaches, so better to be slightly hard-up than completely broke!


Here are some nuts and bolts.


We need a copyright licence (for our Christian meetings):


1)  if we project or print the words to any songs (unless they were written by someone who has been dead for over 70 years).


Sounds fair, but the licence organization also stipulates official wording that should be visible on every song sheet and every acetate – even for our Sunday School singing and weekends away.  It also applies to wedding service sheets.  On my visits to churches, often this isn’t the case.


Copyright of these songs means that the words cannot be changed in any way.  You can write to the author or publisher, but it’s more likely that my cat lays an egg than they let you change anything*.  This means that if we want to sing Graham Kendrick’s ‘All I once held dear’, we must carry on singing to God, ‘You’re the best’, however much it grates with our British sensibilities.  Singing, ‘You’re my rest’ (even though more appropriate in my view), breaks the copyright law.


Taking it one step further than just personal taste, if we don’t agree theologically with some of the words, the only option is not to sing the song.  The point of copyright is to safeguard the author’s theology (even if it is far wide of the mark!)


Nor can a completely new set of words be written to accompany contemporary tunes without the express permission of the author/composer.



2)  if we photocopy any music that was published within the last 25 years.


This includes those last minute copies we make in a blind panic just before the meeting.

The thing to note here is that we must have bought at least one copy of the publication from which photocopies are made.

Again, every photocopy must bear the copyright details and music reproduction licence number on it.


3)  if we show a video or a film clip


Even just for illustrating sermons, or for teaching or entertainment in children’s meetings.


4)  if we perform any music not as part of a Christian meeting.


Organists hold your breath – our voluntaries need to be covered by the Performing Rights Society Church licence because they are deemed to be outside the main meeting! (Unless all we play is pre 20th century)


Also, if we play background music from CD or tape players for events, we need to be covered by this licence.



5)  if we photocopy copyright material from books, journals, periodicals and magazines.


This includes articles reproduced in a church magazine, or quotes printed from books in sermon notes.


Out of breath?  Or was that just another yawn?  I want to say that this article is written by someone who has been guilty of fighting fires on this issue, rather than being rigorous about being subject to authorities.  Our concern must be that the gospel is honoured and obeyed and that our ministry is protected from financial ruin.  The CCLI is a very friendly organization, and are fully supportive of us as we seek to honour Christ in this.  Their email is, web:, and Customer Services phone no. is 01323 436 103.


*I haven’t got a cat


Richard Simpkin

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