Copyright Primer for Congregations

dictionary page with entry for "copyright" highlighted in yellow

Knowing how to use copyrighted content legally is often difficult, especially for congregations. The rules governing nonprofit and religious uses are particularly murky. Congregations want to follow the rules but are often unsure how to do so.

While it is true that copyright violations are more likely to be prosecuted in connection with secular events and platforms, the creators of the words, music, and images that a congregation uses during its worship, religious education, small group ministry, etc., have a right to control and charge for use of their work. Following copyright laws is a way to respect and honor the inherent worth and dignity of the creators of the content that we use. It is also a way to help to ensure that they can continue to afford to create works.

It is important for congregations to have copyright policies and to make sure that leaders and staff are aware of them. See the copyright policy section of A Guide to Creating a Board Policy Book for assistance.

This page provides some advice on congregational use of copyrighted material in general, as well as content published by the UUA specifically. While this page focuses on congregational worship, in person and online, this advice applies to other aspects of congregational activities as well.

Important Things to Keep in Mind

COPYRIGHT LAW IS NOT ALWAYS SPECIFIC: The information provided here is for informational purposes and while it has been reviewed by UUA legal counsel, it does not substitute for legal advice. Copyright law is tremendously nuanced. Change one seemingly minor element in a given scenario and the law may be applied differently. Further, the UUA staff are not copyright experts. We encourage you to consider obtaining legal advice regarding your precise situation, if you cannot obtain permission from the copyright holder(s).

YOU MAY SEE CONFLICTING GUIDANCE FROM OTHER ORGANIZATIONS: Different tolerances for risk guide different interpretations of the law and different recommendations. This guidance represents UUA recommendations.

IS IT WORTH THE RISK? Because copyright law is susceptible to multiple interpretations, you will have to determine how much risk is acceptable for your congregation. Please keep in mind that the less public your use of copyrighted material, the less likely it is to draw scrutiny or meet objection. If your use is limited, copyright holders may be more willing to consider your use as acceptable under the fair use doctrine or religious exemption provisions of copyright law. If you are reading a poem in a Zoom meeting for a small group ministry session, the congregation is far less likely to suffer any adverse consequences than if you post a video of the reading on YouTube, for instance. But, if you post a performance of a song on your congregational website homepage, it is more likely that the copyright holder will take legal action. Social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube regularly monitor content and will remove your account if they determine that your content violates their copyright policies.

PERMISSION TRUMPS COPYRIGHT LAW: Copyright law provides what you can and cannot do without permission. If you have permission from the copyright holder, you can legally use the content consistent with the permission obtained. This means that you do not necessarily have to understand or interpret copyright law. The safest thing to do is just ask permission.

YOU MAY ALREADY HAVE PERMISSION WITHOUT KNOWING IT. In many cases, UUA staff have obtained permission on behalf of congregations to use certain copyrighted works. In many other cases, the UUA holds the rights and has decided to give permission to all congregations for certain uses.

REGARDLESS OF COPYRIGHT, YOU MAY HAVE TO SECURE PERMISSION FROM PEOPLE DEPICTED IN IMAGES AND VIDEOS THAT YOU SHARE.

Copyright Holder Permissions

Follow the five steps below to find out if you need to obtain permission from the Copyright Holder, if you already have that permission and how to ask for permission if you need it.

Step 1: Find Out If Anyone Holds the Copyright

  • Some content is in the public domain, which means no one holds a current copyright and you can use it without permission, even if there is a copyright notice on your copy. As a general rule, a work is in the public domain in the United States if it was published in the United States before 1925 or if the author was a named (not anonymous or pseudonymous) individual who died more than 70 years ago.
  • If the work that you want to use is from a UUA hymnal, please check the copyright notice on the page of the hymn or reading or acknowledgments in the back of the book. You can request a spreadsheet of information about copyright holders for the hymnals by emailing Mary Benard, Publications Director of the UUA.
  • If the content that you want to use is in a book, then the identity of the copyright holder is typically on the copyright notice found at the front of the book. Content by someone other than the book’s author probably has a separate copyright. In that case, there will usually be a permission acknowledgment on the copyright page, in a separate Credits or Acknowledgments section, or on the same page as the content.
  • If the content that you want to use is located on a website, the copyright holder is most likely the owner of the website. Content by someone other than the website owner probably has a separate copyright. There should be a permission acknowledgment near that content. Be careful. You should not assume that content used on a website has no copyright, even if there is no permission acknowledgment.
  • One work may have multiple copyrights. For instance, a hymn may have separate copyrights for the lyrics, tune, and arrangement.
  • Even if no copyright information is indicated, the work is likely protected by copyright unless you can confirm that it is in the public domain. No registration or notice is required for copyright protection to exist.

Even if the content is protected by copyright law, your congregation may still be able to use it because of the fair use doctrine and religious exemption parts of U.S. copyright law. Or permission may already have been granted. But before this can be determined, you need to answer the question in Step 2:

Step 2: Decide to Use the Copyrighted Content Temporarily or Indefinitely

Temporary Use

use of the content for a limited time, such as in a disposable handout or order of service, a screen that is shared in an unrecorded Zoom gathering, or a projection on a screen within a physical worship space.

Indefinite Use

use in any format that will be available for the foreseeable future, such as a print or digital publication, a reusable binder of hymns, YouTube video, post on a website, or archived blog.

A TEMPORARY USE CAN BECOME AN INDEFINITE USE IF THE CONTENT IS SHARED IN A NEW WAY.For instance, a poem shared in a webinar is temporary unless the webinar is recorded and posted on a website. Then it becomes indefinite. A hymn sung in a Zoom worship service is temporary use unless that worship service is recorded or uploaded to YouTube, then it becomes indefinite.

If you plan on temporary use of content that is copyrighted by the UUA, the UUA grants permission. NOT EVERYTHING THAT IS IN A UUA PUBLICATION OR RESOURCE IS OWNED BY THE UUA (see Step 1).

If you plan on temporary use of content that is copyrighted by someone other than the UUA, please go on to Step 3.

If you plan to use content from a UUA source indefinitely, please go to Permission to Use Content from UUA Publications and Digital Resources. If the content from a UUA source is copyrighted by someone other than the UUA, the copyright holder may have given permission to UU congregations already. This section also provides guidance on contacting copyright holders.

If you plan to use content from a non-UUA source indefinitely, please skip to Step 5 for advice on seeking permission.

Step 3: Can You Use the Copyrighted Content without Permission

Copyright law includes two potentially relevant exceptions, the fair use doctrine and the religious exemption, that allow use of copyrighted material without permission under specific circumstances. Basic definitions are below, followed by FAQs to help you determine whether either of these exceptions apply in your case.

Fair Use

 The doctrine of fair use is designed to allow use of copyright-protected material without the author or other copyright owner’s permission for purposes of “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.” It is frustrating, but the rules about when the fair use exemption applies are not clear and specific. Instead, copyright law lists 4 factors to consider and balance against each other:

  1. purpose and character of the use (commercial vs. nonprofit educational) This factor often works in favor of use in worship but is open to interpretation and not a reliable defense if you are accused of copyright infringment.
  2. nature of the copyrighted work (creative work has stronger copyright protection) Copyright holders often argue that use of creative work in worship is not fair use because of this factor.
  3. proportion of the copyrighted work used and the importance of the excerpted content to the copyrighted work (how much of the work is being used) This factor depends on both the length of the work and the portion being used. Even a small portion of a larger work can be problematic if it is the "heart of the work."
  4. effect of the use on potential sales of the copyrighted work This factor may favor the proposed use, but the more your use compete with potential sales of the work, the less this factor will protect you against allegations of infringement.

THERE IS NO SPECIFIC FORMULA FOR APPLYING OR WEIGHTING THESE FACTORS TO DETERMINE WHETHER AN USE IS FAIR USE. THEY ARE BALANCED AGAINST EACH OTHER, AND NO SINGLE FACTOR ON ITS OWN WILL BE DETERMINATIVE.

Religious Exemption

Copyright law states that the following is legal without permission, regardless of copyright: Performance of a nondramatic 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. Please note the italicized words.

The law also specifically states that THE RELIGIOUS EXEMPTION DOES NOT EXTEND TO RELIGIOUS BROADCASTS OR OTHER TRANSMISSIONS TO THE PUBLIC AT LARGE, even where the transmissions were sent from the place of worship. This means that some things are permissible to do during in-person worship that are not permissible during virtual services that are available to the public. Please see the FAQs below for answers to specific questions.

COPYRIGHT LAW IS SILENT ON THE QUESTION OF WHETHER THE RELIGIOUS EXEMPTION APPLIES TO CLOSED ONLINE PLATFORMS LIKE ZOOM FOR WORSHIP SERVICES. There is no case law precedent, so it is safer to ask permission from the copyright holder than to rely on the religious exemption for any form of online worship.

Helpful Hint: If these exceptions don’t apply to what you want to do but the content is from a UUA or Skinner House source, don’t despair yet! Please go to Step 4, where you may find that the copyright holder has already granted permission.

FAQs about Copyright Law for Congregations

Can We Project Copyrighted Material on a Screen in the Physical Worship Space without Obtaining Permission?

Yes, but only in such a way that the content is not distributed beyond the physical worship space to the public at large, and is used in a temporary way. For projection, the congregation must legally own at least one physical copy of the content. If these conditions are met, the projected copy should be from the legally obtained physical copy; however, if that is not feasible, a broad interpretation of the statute would support projecting a photocopy or scanned or retyped copy. But the statute is not clear on this point and there are no court rulings on it, so the decision should be made based on risk tolerance.

Can We Reproduce Copyrighted Material without Obtaining Permission during a Closed Worship Service That Is Online but Not Available to the General Public?

Copyright law has not caught up to the digital age and the pandemic. It is silent on this question, unfortunately. There is no case law precedent, so it is safer to get permission from the copyright holder than to rely on the religious exemption for any form of online worship.

Can We Share Copyrighted Content from YouTube and Videos from Other Online Platforms in Worship without Permission?

No, unless the video is a performance of a nondramatic literary or musical work or of a dramatico-musical work of a religious nature. Nondramatic here means not written specifically for performance, and a dramatico-musical work is a musical work created as a part of a dramatic production. You need the copyright holder’s permission to stream a video, even a clip. YouTube videos and videos created on other platforms are copyrighted by the videos’ creators. Some videos on YouTube may have “terms of use” specified in the poster’s profile that give permission for certain uses. YouTube and Vimeo both have a large collection of videos, movies, and films that are licensed under one of the Creative Commons licenses or the Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication, which can be used without specific permission being obtained.

Can Copyrighted Material Be Printed or Copied without Permission for Non-worship Events, Such as Conferences, Retreats, Etc., Where It Is Not Possible to Have Enough Copies of Hymn Books Available for Everyone?

No. Unfortunately, exemptions in the copyright law do not apply to these kinds of events. This answer is the same regardless of whether these events are held in-person or virtually.

Can We Make Hard Copies from a Legally Obtained Copy of Content for Visual Accessibility (Such as Larger Print)?

Yes. (Phew! It’s nice to finally be able to say yes to something.) The copyright law allows an authorized entity to reproduce or distribute copies of a literary or musical work in an accessible format for someone who is blind, has an uncorrectable visual impartment, a reading disability that cannot be improved to allow the individual to read printed works, or is unable to hold or manipulate a book because of physical disability.

There are a couple of requirements that you must follow. The copies of the work created and distributed under this exemption must: 1) be only in an accessible format exclusively for use by eligible persons; 2) include a notice that any further reproduction or distribution in a format other than an accessible format is an infringement; and 3) include a copyright notice identifying the copyright owner and the date of the original publication.

Also, if you need content from the UUA or Skinner House in an alternative format for accessibility, please contact Mary Benard, Publications Director.

Can We Make Copies of Copyrighted Music And/or Lyrics without Permission for the Purposes of Learning, Practicing, and Rehearsing?

Unfortunately, no. The copyright holder may prefer that you purchase these copies and that is their right.

If you are asking the copyright holder for permission to use the song, such as in a publicly available online worship service, you can also ask for permission at the same time to distribute print or digital copies so the choir and musicians can learn the piece.

Step 4: Check to See Whether Permission Has Already Been Given

The UUA wants congregations to be able to use our resources in whatever way is most helpful to them. The UUA grants permission for most common uses of all of its copyrighted content. But we do not hold the copyright to everything in our publications, so we have also worked with contributors to obtain permissions on your behalf wherever we could. Please review the appropriate section below based on the original source of the content you want to use, for specific guidance.

Hymns and readings: UUA staff have obtained permissions from a number of copyright holders for congregations to use hymns and readings under certain circumstances. You can use our hymnal copyright spreadsheet (PDF) to find out what hymns and readings are available for you to use without contacting copyright holders yourself.

Handouts in UUA Curricula and Programs: If the content you want to reproduce is in a UUA resource that encourages you to give participants and/or leaders their own copies (e.g. handouts, facilitator resources, homework, exercises, etc.), you have permission from the UUA to photocopy, scan, email, and/or screen share it. You can also post it in a private social media group. These uses are also covered by the permission agreements between the UUA and anyone else who holds copyright to any of this content.

Tapestry of Faith: The UUA’s Tapestry of Faith (PDF) online curricula and resources are free to download and adapt, whether for use in person or online. Permissions for these uses have been granted by the UUA and by other copyright holders. When you share, please acknowledge the UUA’s Tapestry of Faith as your source and acknowledge the copyright owner of specific material and identify the adaptations or edits that the congregation has made.

Skinner House Books: Skinner House Books gives blanket permission to congregations to use content from any of its publications in worship services, both in person and online, as long as the following circumstances are met:

  • THE CONTENT IS COPYRIGHTED BY THE UUA OR BY THE PRIMARY AUTHOR(S) OR EDITOR(S) LISTED ON THE COVER. The UUA is authorized to extend this permission on behalf of authors by publishing contract. However, this does not apply to contributors. For instance, an author of an essay in an anthology will need to be asked for permission unless there is a notice to the contrary in the publication.
  • THE CONTENT MAY NOT BE ADAPTED WITHOUT PERMISSION. Unchanged excerpts are not considered adaptations as long as they are identified as excerpts.
  • Full credit is given to the author, book, and Skinner House Books, and the copyright notice in the book is included with the reproduced content.

If the desired content is in a UUA publication but copyrighted by someone other than the UUA, please proceed to Step 5.

Step 5: Request Permission

If the exceptions in the copyright law, as described in Step 3, do not apply to the congregation’s situation and permission has not already been granted for what the congregation wants to do, as described in Step 4, the congregation should request permission. Below is guidance on how to do that:

Find Contact Information

For UUA hymnbooks: Please contact Kiana Nwaobia, knwaobia@uua.org, for contact information for copyright holders. She can provide a spreadsheet upon request.

For all other UUA and Skinner House publications: Please go to Permissions and Licensing.

For non-UUA books: Publishers usually respond to permission requests on behalf of the book’s authors. Specific information on how to send in permission requests is usually on the publisher’s website. They may have an online form for you to fill out. Even if you don’t know where the content was originally published, you are generally going to have better luck googling that information so that you can write to the publisher than if you try to contact an author directly. If the book is an anthology, though, you’ll probably get a faster response if you can contact the author of that specific piece directly.

For websites: There is usually a “contact us” section. If the content appears to be from the site’s creators, try to find someone in a communications or administrative position to write to for permission. If the piece appears to be reproduced on the site from someone else, like a poem for instance, try to contact that creator directly.

For individuals: If you need to contact an author, musician, or artist directly, it is best to do so following the directions on their professional websites if they have them.

Include the Following Information in Your Request

  • The specific content you propose to use, and where you found it.
  • The specific thing that you want to do with the content (e.g., use it in a recorded webinar to be posted on a congregational website, with the URL). Consider everything that would be helpful and include it in your permission request. For example, if you want to use a song in streamed worship, consider also asking for permission to email sheet music to the choir for rehearsal.
  • How many copies you intend to make (or how many attendees you expect for a virtual event).
  • Whether you intend to charge for the content (or attendance at the event featuring the content).
  • That the proposed use is on behalf of a nonprofit organization.
  • The specific changes you want to make if you are adapting the content.
  • The date of the intended use.
  • How you propose to give the copyright holder credit.

Important note: The permission will be invalid if the information in the request is inaccurate or incomplete. For instance, if your event will be recorded or if you are adapting the content, you must include that in the request.