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When COVID hit last year, having an online presence (often including live streaming of our worship services) became a more common tool to help churches stay connected with their congregations.  However, many people may have discovered the hard way that we can’t just put anything we want online.  There are legal obstacles that need to be taken into account.  Chief among these is copyright.  As both an attorney for over two decades and the Media Director at Trinity Lutheran Church in Joppa, Maryland, this presented a proverbial dance that I was all too familiar with.

What is copyright?  In short, it is the protection given to content creators to make sure other people don’t take or use their content without their permission.  If you write a song, you don’t want another singer recording it and passing it off as their own.  If you make a movie, you don’t want a rival studio distributing it to theaters and making all the money off of it.  Copyright is a way of making sure that if you create something, you get to decide what to do with it.

A lot of the things we are used to having in our worship services are subject to copyright.  Do you sing music?  There are probably copyright issues.  Have you shown video clips?  Again, someone owns the copyright.  There are multiple levels of copyright.  The original composition/tune, particular arrangement, individual performance, and even the recording can all have separate levels of copyright.  So just because a hymn, for example, is in the public domain does not mean you can pull up a recording of the Westminster Children’s Choir singing it and play it on your stream.  Public domain only covers the original tune, not the arrangement, performance and recording.

So, does this mean we throw in the towel and don’t live stream anything?  Fortunately, no.  We just need to make sure we are doing it the right way.  For anything you put online, you need to make sure you have permission, and the way you get permission is by purchasing a license.

In Christian circles this means Christian Copyright Licensing International, or as they’re more commonly known, CCLI.  CCLI offers different levels of licensing depending on the needs of your church.  They have an enormous selection of Christian songs, both traditional and contemporary, in their Song Select library.  In fact, you’ll probably be hard pressed to find a Christian song that isn’t included.  One level of licensing covers things you may not even have known you need a license for.  For example, even if you aren’t live streaming, making photocopies of music to hand out to your choir or displaying copyrighted lyrics on a screen for your congregation to read are things for which you should have a license.  CCLI licenses allow you to do all of this.  Their lowest level also gives you permission to record your services to be viewed later.  If you want to live stream with your own musicians, you’ll need their Streaming License.  They even offer a Streaming Plus level that lets you use backing tracks or play the original artist’s master recordings during your service if you like.  The important thing is to look at the needs of your church, compare them to the various licensing options, and make sure you get the correct license for your needs.

There are two final caveats.  First, a CCLI license only covers songs played or sung during worship services.  It does not allow churches to make other online content with the music (i.e., podcasts, church produced music videos, etc.).  Second, it covers only the songs, not someone else’s music videos.  So, for example, you may be able to play the audio of a song over your stream, but that does not authorize you to show all the images contained in the artist’s music video for that song.  There is another layer of copyright protection for the video images.

The ramifications if you do not have an appropriate license could be severe.  First, your church could be sued for a copyright violation.  Second, whatever online platform you are using to live stream your services could revoke your ability to do so.  But most importantly, getting the proper licenses ensures that the person who put in the creative effort to make the content is getting properly compensated for their work.  If we are trying to set a Christ-centered example, then one way we can do that is to not use someone’s else’s property without their permission.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • David Gekler says:

    Nice summary. However you do Not cover the issues 99% of churches are having. Simply – Facebook and YouTube. Those two streaming sites are used by 99% of churches and those two sites have Algorithms that simply Listen to whatever music you play. That Algorithm compares in milliseconds your piece is Music to an enormous data base, far bigger than CCLI or any copyright company has. If that algorithm recognizes your music, it is first Flagged, sometimes Muted, and sometime your stream is Shut down altogether. The Algorithm does Not SEE and FB and YT have been sued enough to not care if you have a CCLI or other license.

    I am sure the problem is not that churches are trying to rip off the artist. I knew the guys that designed that Algorithm, they actually feel guilty and asked me to swear I would never reveal them. They have told me it would be far easier to make an Algorithm that searches for CCLI Licenses than to listen for music. Think how much smaller that data base is!

    I am asking all churches to step out and demand that FB and YT work WITH CCLI and such to stop this silly and annoying problem. I reached the end of the rope with the president of CCLI. They have lawyers coming out of their ears making deals with artists’, publisher and Labels. All they have to do is redirect a few to negotiate with YT and FB. Instead they just take our money and forget they are working for US. I am all for protecting the artist. But there is far more to this problem. Thanks for reading

    • Ken Coughlan says:

      Thank you for your comment. It is true that Facebook and YouTube have their own systems for recognizing music in your live streams or uploaded videos. These are generally completely automated and can result in some form of “next step” being taken. However, it is extremely rare for a stream to be flagged, muted or shut down for including music that is covered by the CCLI Song Select library. If music outside of that library is used, then the risk is certainly higher.

      At Trinity we broadcast on average 9-10 live streams per week in addition to various direct video uploads. Of these, at least four regularly include music covered by our CCLI license and one uses master recordings (i.e., the original artist’s recording). We send our streams to both YouTube and Facebook.

      In regard to YouTube, it is true that every time we utilize licensed music they send us an automated email notification. However, this notice is not a copyright strike and does not affect the stream or video. It simply informs us that their system recognized the copyrighted content and that the copyright owner for that song, should they choose to do so, has the right to run ads on our video. This does not occur during the stream but would be visible to anyone who replays the video after the fact. Also, if the song was performed by our own musicians, we also have the right to run ads on the video if we like. In that case the revenue is split between our channel and the copyright owner. If we played master recordings, then the video still remains available for viewing but we cannot run ads on it. Most church channels are not eligible for monetization anyway (you need at least 1,000 subscribers and to meet certain viewership criteria), so this should not prove to be a significant obstacle. We have been playing licensed music on our channel for over 5 years and in that time we have only had one incident in which we received a copyright strike. That was several years ago and an easily cleared up matter of an inexperienced record company employee who did not understand the full range of CCLI licensure.

      Facebook is admittedly more strict than YouTube. They have been known to mute sections of a live stream after the fact when their automated system recognizes copyrighted content. However, when this happens the administrator of your page will receive a notification from Facebook stating which portion of the video was muted and identifying the suspected copyrighted content. It then asks if you have the right to broadcast that content. If it is something covered by the CCLI license, then you simply click the button stating you have the right to use that music and Facebook will unmute the relevant portion of your stream.

      It is correct that neither YouTube nor Facebook have systems in place to determine whether the owner of a particular channel has a CCLI license. However, the result is that the record companies err on the side of assuming you do and permit the content to be played so long as they can run ads on it. However, these companies can run checks to search for illegal use. As such, it is a good practice to include your CCLI license number in the description of your stream/video.

      This is not to say there will not be exceptions to these general rules. However, I can say that at Trinity we produce an extensive amount of online video content and have been doing so for several years. What I described above has been my near universal experience as to how YouTube and Facebook are currently handling copyrighted music covered by CCLI. God bless.