Navigating the Copyright Minefield when Live Streaming Worship

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.