Intellectual Property and Churches

A Toe Dip into the Shallow End

More than any other legal issue, church leaders today ask questions about intellectual property laws.  Leaders always want to know whether there is some body of law regulating how they use songs, movie clips, pictures, and other creative works.  In order to dive deeper into intellectual property questions, first we must dip a toe in the shallow end of the area to develop a basic vocabulary about the different laws that protect intellectual property.  We’ll tackle some more specific issues in the future, but for now, let’s just wade in.

In the United States, intellectual property is largely governed by federal statutes.  Most states also have limited protections for certain types of intellectual property.  Each type of intellectual property, then, has its own set of state and federal laws determining when intellectual property is protected, and when it is not.  As an introduction to this vitally important area of law, below I describe two areas of intellectual property law most relevant to churches.  My sincere hope is that you walk away with a working framework for asking the right questions about your present policies and procedures.

Introduction to Copyright© – “Can I use that Google image on our website?”

Copyright law protects “original works of authorship” such as literary works, musical works, dramatic works, pantomimes and choreographic works, pictorial and graphic works, motion pictures and other audio visual works, and sound recordings.  What church leader doesn’t get excited about their pantomime ministry?  Based on my ministry experience at several churches, this is an area of intellectual property law that daily impacts churches.  Whenever someone creates an original work of authorship, their rights to own and control that work arise automatically.

Copyright owners have five basic rights with respect to their work:  (1) the right to reproduce their work; (2) the right to modify their work; (3) the right to distribute their work; (4) the right to publicly perform their work; and (5) the right to publicly display their work.  Don’t miss this – the author’s rights to the above are exclusive, meaning they have the right to prevent anyone from exercising those rights with their work.  That’s right – it means they can even  potentially stop churches from infringing on these rights.  In addition, creators can register their works at the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress.

If a work has been registered, the owner of that work is entitled to more protection if their work was used without their permission.  In general, copyright protections last for 70 years after the author’s death, but under some circumstances, that time is shortened.

If someone’s copyright was infringed, then the person or group (this may mean you, pastor) that used the work without permission or payment better have a viable legal excuse.  There are only a few legal excuses that work, and they include circumstances where: (1) the work was already in the public domain, (2) the infringing use of the work is governed by the doctrine of “fair use,” or (3) the work is a factual concept or idea.

Introduction to Trademark® – “Can I use their logo in our bulletin?”

Trademarks and service marks are words, names, symbols, or devices used by manufacturers and providers to distinctively identify their goods and services, and to distinguish those from goods and services sold by others (when you think “mark,” think about the Nike swoosh symbol).  A trademark registration can be obtained at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) or in the Secretary of State’s office for each state.  If a trademark owner has a federal registration, then they have specific rights and remedies to prevent others from trying to use a mark that is identical or similar to the registered mark.  State registrations of trademarks typically do not provide a comprehensive set of rights, but can serve as a deterrent to others that might plan to use or mimic your mark.  Trademark registrations are valid for 10 years if properly documented, and can be renewed indefinitely under certain conditions.

Looking Forward

Now that you understand some basic intellectual property concepts, you may have developed questions related to your church:

  • Did we violated someone’s copyright when we played that playlist during the men’s retreat?
  • Can I prevent someone from downloading and delivering my sermons, word‑for‑word?
  • Can the church down the street start using our church’s name?
  • Can a church in another state steal our logo, or use pictures from our website?
  • Or worse, our church received a cease and desist letter from a large publishing house threatening to sue us. Can they really do that? 

The list of questions could go on and on.

The bottom line is this area is complex and fraught with misleading urban legends advising that churches are somehow immune from liability merely because they are a non-profit.  This is not true.  While this article does not address the questions above, in the future I will further explore those issues by providing you with examples where churches have been held financially responsible for missteps.  More importantly, I will provide you with tips for protecting your church’s valuable financial resources.

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