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Even while livestreaming worship, churches must comply with copyright laws

Workshop links viewers to services and dispels some myths

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Bill Oxford via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE —  The people who design and livestream worship need to be aware of the basics of copyright law, and an online workshop offered Tuesday by the Presbyterian Communicators Network helped nearly 100 participants to understand what’s required of churches, including laws that may be evolving even as the pandemic persists.

Andrej Ajanovic, a staff attorney with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Administrative Services Group, opened his presentation with two caveats: it’s not legal advice, and he’s not an intellectual property attorney.

Understanding the basics of copyright law is increasingly important, especially for the thousands of PC(USA) churches offering online or hybrid worship services, not only to their own congregation but to whoever joins online. “Streaming is skyrocketing,” Ajanovic said, “and the law is still catching up.”

(A legal resource manual for mid councils and churches, which includes a brief exploration of intellectual property law, is available here.)

Like the rest of the nation, churches must abide by copyright laws. But fortunately for faith organizations, there’s an accessible alternative to hunting down copyright requirements on such intellectual property as music, dramatic or choreographed performances and written work. The shortcut for churches is through commercial licensing services, including Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI), One License and Christian Copyright Solutions (CCS).

Ajanovic also sought to dispel some commonly held myths about using copyright material without first securing permission. All these myths are false, Ajanovic said:

  • “If it’s on the internet, it’s in the public domain.”
  • “If I alter the work, I don’t need permission.”
  • “If I don’t profit, I can use it.”
  • In addition, “there’s no 10-second rule” for displaying artwork online, Ajanovic said. “It’s not true.”

The bottom line: research anything you wish to use, whether it’s for a worship service or another church use, to determine if it’s a copyrighted work. Document your research. If you want to use copyrighted work, always get written permission first.

‘Just because you’re a little guy doesn’t mean you’re immune’

Jeffrey Lawrence, director of Media & Publishing for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, said that people who update web pages and social media postings or who write, edit and publish newsletters often “go online and grab things” to, for example, provide art to enhance their post. “Unfortunately,” Lawrence said, “this is not a prudent practice.”

“Just because you’re a little guy doesn’t mean you’re immune,” Lawrence said, listing three considerations before each use of image, film or other item that could have copyright implications: Who owns it? Who or what’s in it? How do you plan to use it?

Owning a copyright, Lawrence said, is as simple as clicking the shutter of a camera. But one can hunt online for images and even brief videos that can be used for free without the user having to secure permission. Those websites include these providers:, and

Don’t republish content from mainstream news sources unless there’s a message that says, “Feel free to use this,” Lawrence said. The Presbyterian News Service uses this statement at the end of each article it publishes: “You may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.”

When it comes to publishing photos, Lawrence suggests keeping in mind that people may not their photo used. It’s a good idea to tell people gathered for a church event that someone will be taking photos or recording short videos and that some could end up on the church’s website or as part of a livestream. That information can be communicated as part of the event’s registration form. “If they opt out, please respect that,” Lawrence said.

Churches seeking to raise funds or boost their membership are seen as commercial enterprises, a fact that surprises plenty of church people. “You may not see yourself as commercial,” Lawrence said, “but the law says otherwise.”

Church communicators and leaders are invited to join the Communicators Network Facebook Group, which has grown in just a few weeks to include nearly 400 members. The group is designed to provide a safe space for communication and collaboration among PC(USA) church communicators and leaders.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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