Pastor Faces Lawsuit Over Copyright

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Discord looms over digital music use in worship.

A Christian Reformed minister says he is within legal bounds providing on-screen songs, both musical notations and words, for overhead projection in churches. But the Christian Music Publishers Association (CMPA) is singing a different tune.

Rev. Donald Steenhoek of Rogers Heights CRC in Wyoming, Mich., came up with his format to please worshipers who objected to singing projected songs without musical notation. About 150 Christian Reformed congregations use his combination, offered at www.inspirationalworship.com.

But a lawyer representing several publishers said Steenhoek’s service violates copyright law. “We’ve spent two-and-a-half years trying to work something out,” said Rush Hicks. “Our goal is to stop further infringement and prevent him from issuing digital files unless he is able to reach an agreement with the publishers. We ask to be compensated for the use of materials.”

Steenhoek views his Web-based software as a service, not a product, and legal under U.S. copyright laws.

Not so, said Scott Shorney, vice president of Hope Publishing in Carol Stream, Ill. “It’s no different than someone downloading a CD,” Shorney said.

Steenhoek said that, unlike simple downloading, each user creates a unique digital file, and Inspirational Worship validates the given license information. He said he has offered to pay a reasonable fee to copyright holders but has received only a standard print agreement.

“For us this is unacceptable, since those who access our proprietary, Web-based software do not want to print the file they create, they want to project it.”

Gary Mulder, executive director of CRC Publications, said Steenhoek came to that agency some years ago. “He asked if we wanted to partner with him, but we had questions about copyright issues, so we didn’t pursue it.”

Hicks said the CMPA is only interested in stopping the infringement, not in filing a lawsuit. Only if no agreement with Steenhoek is forthcoming will Hicks go ahead with the suit.

If a lawsuit against Steenhoek is successful, there would be no repercussion against churches currently using his software, but the court could order them to stop future use.

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