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FIRST-PERSON: Does your church break the law?

GAINESVILLE, Ga. (BP)–Many churches break the law on a weekly basis. How? They make illegal copies of music. For some reason, there is a vague thought process assuming that “as long as it’s for the Lord’s work, it should be okay.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Internet provides the ability to find an overabundance of material almost instantly and, at the same time, has contributed to the capacity to illegally use copyrighted materials. Recently, the recording industry brought lawsuits against some Web sites. The suits were related to widespread copyright infringement: music being offered electronically that facilitates and allegedly damaged the 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.

The Bible says, “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due” [Romans 4:4]. Violating copyright law denies the copyright holder fair compensation for his or her labor. In other words, breaking a copyright law is not much different than 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 is important to note that copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the manner in which these things are expressed.

What about emergencies?

“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. And, if you find that recurring emergencies require copying someone else’s material, perhaps you need to call a timeout and take an honest look at your planning — and your practices.

Some people operate with the attitude that they will do something and then apologize, because it’s easier to do that than to get permission in the first place. Ethically, 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.

Often, all that many copyright holders require for you to use their materials is simply to use the material in its entirety [without inappropriate editing], give full credit, and don’t use it for commercial purposes. That’s not too much to ask. Wouldn’t you want the same respect given to your work? But, the point is, 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 regularly. Every Sunday, in churches across America, thousands of pieces of photocopied music are used without granting the author the financial compensation that is due to him or her.

Need help with this? In return for a yearly fee, a company called Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc. (CCLI) offers churches blanket permissions to use certain copyrighted music materials. CCLI can be contacted by phone at 1-800-234-2446.

And, if this article has raised any questions (or pricked a conscience or two) the Library of Congress maintains a Web site, www.loc.gov/copyright, where all pertinent copyright information that your church might need is available.

And, by the way, it is the Lord’s work. Let’s be sure we do it honestly and honorably.
Burkett is chairman of the board of Crown Ministries, which merged last fall with the ministry he founded in 1976, Christian Financial Concepts. A Southern Baptist layman based in Gainesville, Ga., Burkett is the host of the national “Money Matters” radio program and author of two resources published by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention: “How Much Is Enough? 30 Days to Personal Revival” and “Jesus on Money.”

    About the Author

  • Larry Burkett