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Copyright : Copyright and Worship

Why do I need to worry about copyright during worship?

Copyright is at play in many aspects of worship and religious services. US Copyright Code allows for the "performance of a nondramatic literary or musical work or of a dramatico-musical work of a religious nature, or display of a work, in the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly" 17 U.S.C. § 110(3). Effectively, this in an exception that allows material that otherwise would require permission or a license to be performed or displayed during an in-person religious service. If your congregation's needs expand beyond the religious service exceptions in the US Copyright Code, there are other options, including acquiring licences, receiving permission, or using public domain and open access resources. 

Music vs Lyrics

For many hymns and songs, the copyright for lyrics and the music may be held by different different creators and expire at different times. In some instances, the lyrics will be protected by copyrights, but the music will not. The inverse is often true as well.

How to Acquire Licenses

An easy and common way for a congregation to increase the ways in which they can use copyrighted material into their services is to purchase licenses. Often, these licenses will cover thousands of different musical works and include permission to print lyrics and perform the music in online worship. 

Acquiring Permission for Specific Works

Sometimes, the copyrighted material that you wish to use is not covered by a license or the the specific type of use you require is not covered. In that case, you can try to reach out to the publisher or the copyright holder to acquire permission 

Public Domain and the Creative Commons

Online Worship Copyright Video

Unitarian Universalism

The UUA provides excellent information about copyright and worship.

Copyright Exceptions for In-Person Religious Services

Music: Non-dramatic copyrighted music can be performed and music recordings played during a religious service without permission from the copyright holder. Dramatic musical works, such as operas and musicals, do not full under the religious service exemption and will require permission from the copyright holder(s). 

Readings: Short stories, poems, and other readings can be read aloud during a worship service without receiving permission from the copyright holder

Videos: Showing copyrighted videos is not covered under the religious service exemption and playing a copyright video will require permission from the copyright holder(s). 

Printing lyrics and musical notation: Copyrighted lyrics and/or music notation cannot be printed and distributed in the orders of service or handouts without permission from the copyright holder. However, in some cases, lyrics and/or music can be projected onto a screen. See "Projection" below. 

Printing reading: The text of readings cannot be printed and distributed in the orders of service or handouts without permission from the copyright holder. Fair Use does allow, in some cases, limits excerpts or quotes to be used. 

Projection: This is an important exception. According the Unitarian Universalist Association legal counsel "congregations may project the lyrics to any hymn as long as the congregation owns a single copy of the hymnal. Furthermore, the projection does not have to be from the purchased copy; it’s permissible to project a photocopy or scanned copy or retyped lyrics. However, those projected lyrics or music may not be included in a videostream." (

Copyright and Online Religious Services

The exceptions for religious services that are so useful for in-person worship do not apply to worship that is recorded and/or streamed. Simply put, the act of streaming and/or sharing a recording will count as copying and distributing any copyright material used in the religious service. All material used in a digital religious service must be be in the public domain, have permission or be covered by a license. 

What if my Youtube Video is flagged?

Despite you best efforts, the correct application of Fair Use, and acquiring permission and/or licenses, a video posted to YouTube could still be flagged. Don’t worry, in some cases this is automated and in nearly all cases you will have a chance to contest the decision to YouTube and show that you followed copyright. This link, while for a specific service, provides an overview of how to respond to a copyright strike or ContentID claim 

Copyright Disclaimer

Copyright law is complicated and legal concerns should be addressed by legal counsel. All copyright guidance on this page is informational and not legal advice.

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