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Copyright Laws and the Christian Church
Part 1 - What is CCLI? 

Above all others, Christians should be law-abiding citizens when those laws are reasonable and just. We wouldn’t think of stealing something from a store. However, church musicians often ignore the rule of law when it comes to copyrighted music. We must consider that our Christian witness may be compromised in the eyes of those around us when we do not do our best to be honest and legal in this area. Just because we can “get by” with it, does that make it right?

If your church prints the words and/or music of a song in your church bulletin, song sheets, or self-made songbook, or projects song words on the screen, then permission is needed for each piece that is under copyright protection. To make this easier for you, Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) was created. Hymn owners and publishers have given CCLI the right to make these arrangements with churches and individuals. CCLI collects the royalties from the churches in the form of an annual fee and makes royalty payments to the copyright holders. For most of our churches the annual fee would be approximately $100. It is based on the average attendance at the weekly worship service. The link at the left will get you to CCLI to learn more.

Part 2 - What about our "own" music?


When people become aware of their obligations in regard to copyrighted material—such as the music and words of songs—they usually either join CCLI or stop printing the words or music of copyrighted music in their bulletins, home-produced songbooks, or projected displays.

“Except,” I often hear said, “for our own books.” (By that they mean books published by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.) “We don’t have to worry about getting permission for printing songs from our own hymnal, do we?”

Here are the answers quoted directly from the Review & Herald Publishing Association website (in an abbreviated form):
“Although the Review and Herald® owns the copyright to the collection as a whole, we do not own the copyright to each individual hymn in the collection.

There are three types of hymns in the hymnal:

1. Hymns Owned by the Review and Herald®: If you want to use hymns owned by the Review and Herald®, you will need to send us a written request, including a list of the hymns you want to use. Our Administrative Committee will consider the request, and, if they approve it, we will let you know the required royalty payment or use fee.

2. Hymns Owned by Other Individuals or Organizations: The copyright ownership may be for the words, the music, the arrangement, or any combination of these. You must write to the copyright owner(s) and obtain permission to use the copyrighted hymns. If you are including the hymn in a hymnal or songbook, you must arrange for royalty payments to be made to the copyright holder on a quarterly or yearly basis. (A booklet with names and address of many church music copyright holders is available from the Book Division rights and permissions coordinator.)

3. Hymns in the Public Domain: Most of the hymns in the hymnal are in the public domain. Any song or hymn without a credit line at the end is in the public domain. The key date is 1922. Anything copyrighted that year or before is in public domain because the copyright has expired. No permission is necessary to use hymns that are in the public domain. You can copy public domain hymns and use them without getting permission.”

This is only part of the information given on the website. To understand this issue more completely regarding “our own books,” read all about it at the link provided at the left. 

Part 3: Out-of-print and 1923

Many of us have bought into the myth that copying music is permissible if it is out-of-print. This, however, is not allowed by copyright laws. Something that is out of print and not available for public purchase is still protected. You are not allowed to copy music that is out-of-print simply because you can no longer buy it. If you ask, the copyright holder may grant you permission to copy under these circumstances, but you may need to pay a fee for the privilege. Ask before you make the copies, not after. (With the internet, it is easier than ever before to contact copyright holders for permission.) 

One last thing. 1923. Why 1923? Because the way I understand it, works published in the U.S. before 1923 are now in public domain and no longer under copyright protection. Works published or unpublished after that date are covered by different laws and most likely are still be under copyright protection. So remember 1923.

 Let’s summarize what we have examined in this series in The Singing Church.
  •  There are legal and ethical issues churches must face when reproducing music.
  •  CCLI has been established to help resolve those issues.
  • The same legal obligations apply to SDA publishers and writers.
  • Out-of-print items are still protected.
  • Ask for permission before copying.
  • Anything published before 1923 is now in public domain.

While we could spend much more time looking at the complex issue of copyright laws and the Christian church, let’s stop with these basics for now and determine collectively to Plan and Pay. That is, Plan ahead, leaving plenty of time to obtain music in the proper way or to ask permission to reproduce it. And be prepared to pay; the music is someone else’s property and we need to respect his or her rights as owner.