The copyright challenge

Broadcast control room, All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma

Just because you have permission to perform music in worship doesn’t mean you can stream it online.

Image: A major donor’s gift funded the worship broadcasts from All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (© Douglas Henderson)

© Douglas Henderson


If on Sunday morning your choir sings a jubilant rendition of Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” you needn’t worry about Van the Man seeking his share of the collection plate. There’s an exemption under U.S. copyright law for playing and performing musical pieces—even recorded music—during a religious service.

But once you transmit your worship services, via TV, radio, or Internet, the exemption no longer applies. (You also can’t record the music that was played during services unless you comply with copyright laws.)

Churches that live stream need to make sure they’re paying royalties to whoever owns the music they’re playing. The easiest way to do this is to use a copyright service that helps with royalties and licensing. Some work specifically with religious organizations, and some even base their fees on the size of the congregation.

First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, with more than 1,000 members, pays $695 a year to Christian Copyright Solutions, said Kathryn Estey, church administrator. The UU Church of Bloomington, Indiana, with 468 members, uses the same service and pays several hundred dollars. The company offers licenses that allow religious organizations to play, perform, and stream more than 17 million songs, and then pays royalties to the musicians whose music is used. The service requires users to enter information into its database about the music they used so the owner of the copyright is paid, said Carol Marks, church administrator in Bloomington.