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Breaking the law during church?

GAINESVILLE, Ga. (BP)–Many churches break the law on a weekly basis, making illegal copies of music. Some vague thought process assumes that, “as long as it’s for the Lord’s work, it should be OK.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Internet provides the ability to find a superabundance of material almost instantly. And, this has contributed to the capacity to illegally use copyrighted materials. The recording industry has brought lawsuits against some websites and has even turned their attention to some individuals.

The suits are generally related to widespread copyright infringement: music that’s offered electronically that allegedly damages protection that is provided through present copyright laws.

Works created by an individual that are fixed in a tangible medium, such as the article you’re now reading, are protected from theft by the United States copyright laws. The law is intended to protect the “intellectual property” of authors, artists, composers and others. However, many — including musicians whose music is being pirated — say that current copyright laws are protecting an archaic industry, and not the new electronic world.


Electronic media has revolutionized our culture, and copyright laws probably are in need of extensive alteration. However, until that happens, present copyright laws are just that — the copyright laws.

Violating copyright law denies the copyright holder fair compensation for his or her labor. The Bible says, “Now to the one who works, pay is not considered as a gift, but as something owed” (Romans 4:4). Breaking a copyright law is not much different from picking the pocket of the copyright holder.

A work is copyrighted as soon as it is written, photographed, painted, programmed or put into some tangible form. Original works may be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office in Washington D.C. for a small fee. However, works do not have to be registered in order to be copyright protected; an original work is copyright protected as it is created.

Generally, a copyright in a work created after Jan. 1, 1978 lasts for the life of the owner, plus 70 years after his or her death. Only the owner of a copyright-protected work may authorize adaptations, distribute copies, perform, display and copy his or her work. It should be pointed out that copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems or methods of operation, although it may protect the manner in which these things are expressed.


“But, it was an emergency. Our soloist became ill and the choir had to perform. We didn’t have enough copies of the music for all the choir members.”

It’s up to the individual to define an “emergency” situation that he or she believes has justified improper copying. But, emergencies do not justify breaking the law; illegal is illegal. If you find that recurring emergencies require copying someone else’s material, you need to take an honest look at your planning — and your practices.

Some people operate with the attitude that they’ll do something and then apologize, because it’s easier to do that than to get permission in the first place. Ethically, at its best that’s an improper attitude for anyone to have. At its worst, it’s inexcusable for a Christian.

If you are using material from an individual or organization and don’t know if you have the right to use it, chances are pretty good that you don’t. What can you do? That’s easy: contact the owner of the material and get permission before using it.


All that some copyright holders require for you to use their materials is to ask! Then, you are expected to use the material in its entirety (without editing), give full credit, and not use it for commercial purposes. You would want the same respect given to your work. The point is this: You must always ask.

It’s difficult to imagine that a church would knowingly break any law that was not contrary to God’s Word. But, unfortunately it happens every Sunday, in churches across America, when photocopied music is used without granting the author the financial compensation that is due to him or her.

Need some help with any of this? If this article has raised questions (or pricked a conscience), the Library of Congress maintains a website, www.loc.gov/copyright, where copyright information that your church might need is available.

In addition, in return for a yearly fee, a company called Christian Copyright Licensing Inc. (CCLI) offers churches blanket permissions to use certain copyrighted music materials. Contact CCLI online at www.ccli.com, or by phone at 1-800-234-2446.

After all, if it’s the Lord’s work, let’s be sure we do it honestly, excellently and honorably.
Howard Dayton is CEO of Crown Financial Ministries. Dayton and the late Larry Burkett joined forces in 2000 when Crown Ministries, led by Dayton, merged with Christian Financial Concepts, led by Burkett. The new organization became Crown Financial Ministries, on the web at www.crown.org.

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  • Howard Dayton