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Is Your Church Breaking Copyright Law?


When you’re in church singing from the shiny new Lift Up Your Hearts (LUYH) hymnal you’re holding in your hands, it’s all good. All the copyrights and permissions you need are included. Singing from the screen? Maybe not so good. Lift Up Your Hearts is the hymnal published in 2013 by the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America.

Many of the churches contacted by The Banner were not aware that copyright permissions are not included in the purchase price of the digital version. And they aren’t happy about it. This despite the fact that it is noted on the LUYH website in various places, including on the order page.

“There are some people who believe that the religious exemption copyright law allows churches to do whatever they want as long as it is for worship,” said Diane Dykgraaf, program coordinator for the CRC’s worship ministries office. “I don’t know anyone in the business or an author or composer who interprets it that way. The religious exemption specifically refers to ‘performing’ music in a worship service. Anyone can stand up in front of church and sing a song, play it on an instrument, or even teach the congregation and have them sing along. But as soon as you reproduce it in any way, you are bound by copyright.” Projecting the song is considered reproducing it.

The development of digital materials has outpaced copyright laws, creating a bit of a morass for publishers. David Eicher, a hymnal consultant for the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, edited Glory to God, the new hymnal published in 2013 by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He noted that there is a lot of confusion in the area of copyright for digital materials. “My understanding is that purchase of a digital product does not automatically give rights for projection,” he said. He also noted that the developer of the product has very little power in the situation. “Many copyright holders are very reluctant to give over rights for digital products.”

The good news for churches who have LUYH for projection is that many, many of those 800-plus songs are covered by CCLI, an aggregate license most churches purchase. Add on OneLicense, another popular one, and the list of songs with permission grows even longer. Throw in LicenSing and songs that are in the public domain, and there are only about 40 remaining songs requiring individual permission. LUYH’s website contains lists of all the songs covered by various licenses but no one master list. Some churches are creating their own.

What complicates the matter, though, is that some songs have several copyrights. For some songs, words, music, harmonies, and in one case, the descant, have separate copyright holders. To help churches, all this information, including how to read the credit lines for songs, is provided on the website. Contact information for songs that require contacting individual copyright holders is also provided.

But not all copyright holders are listed there. According to Dykgraaf, that is because they could not find contact information for them but still wanted to give them credit for their work. “If I couldn’t find it, I don’t expect churches to find it,” she said. “In some cases, there are persons who do not want their royalties and do not want to be contacted. In other cases, authors or composers have died, and we couldn’t find family members.”

Where there is contact information, the folks at LUYH have provided on the website sample letters for seeking permission. “You may not even receive a response,” Dykgraaf said, “A reasonable response time would be two to three weeks. Then just save a copy of the email or letter proving that you’ve requested the permission. That’s pretty much all you can do.”

If getting permissions is difficult, why didn’t the editors just leave out those songs? “It would have made my life a lot easier here to go only for the easy and obvious ones,” said Dykgraaf. “But we may have been forced to leave out some good songs. This is especially true for the global music. We were committed to offering the songs of the global church to our worshiping church, but these can be extremely hard to trace and contact. There are language barriers as well as communication issues.”

Some churches only seek copyright permissions when they know they are going to use the song in worship. Others write to copyright holders seeking general permission. In most cases, permission is given freely with no request for payment. Some churches who also have the pew hymnals just sing a song from the book instead of projecting it if a song isn’t covered under one of the licenses.

Reaching many of the individual copyright holders is not that hard. “I do realize, however, that it’s another thing for busy church staff to learn and to carry out,” said Dykgraaf, “so I’m always sympathetic.”

Need to know more?;;; 616-224-0727.

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