Worship Post-COVID: Application of the Religious Services Exemption

The advent of COVID-19 has had long ranging effects on all aspects of life, but as the light of the very long tunnel comes into sight, all of us are beginning to wonder what life after COVID will be like. A prime example of organizations needing to adapt in this environment is the way in which churches will operate moving forward. Specifically, churches will have to carefully consider how they will conduct accessible worship services and still comply with basic copyright laws.

For context, Christian churches often play and perform Christian music live in front of their congregations as part of their normal worship services. Under normal circumstances, this would violate copyright laws that protect creative works owned by their creators from being performed or displayed by others without the creator’s permission. However, churches get to take advantage of a little known exception to the general copyright laws of the United States: the Religious Services Exception. This exception specifically states that the “…performance of a non-dramatic 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” is not considered copyright infringement. To put it simply and relevantly, if a church performs a song as part of a worship service at the place of worship, then there is no need to get the permission of the creator of the song.

Now here’s the problem, with the effects of COVID-19, many churches have moved to online church services, streaming their worship sessions over the internet. They are finding that this new use of technology offers various possibilities in terms of access for congregants and reaching new populations. But the religious service exception, as mentioned, can only be effective if the performance takes place at the place of worship. Streaming the performance of the work does not count and will generally be considered a violation of copyright laws.

Now moving forward, churches must think carefully and intentionally about the options available to them when streaming their worship services. They can enter into licensing agreements with creators. They can research whether the creator has given some sort of blanket permission for use of the music. The church can also ensure that all music streamed online is part of the public domain. No matter which option churches choose, the ultimate lesson is that churches must be careful and intentional about how they use copyrighted material over the internet in the Post-COVID world.

If your church would like help in reviewing licensing agreements or researching possible solutions to stream your worship services, we’d be happy to help. Feel free to give us a call or email us any time.

The above article is for general information purposes only and should not be relied upon as specific legal advice. This article, or contacting Apex, does not in any way form an attorney-client relationship. If you have any questions or would like to learn more, please contact Jacob Ferrari at jacob@apexlg.com.

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