Using Copyrighted Material in Worship
Source: Unitarian Universalist Association
Introduction: Putting the Issue of Copyright in Context
The issues surrounding copyright and worship are complex and often confusing. Congregations want to do things the right way, but often are not sure how.
Copyright raises legal and moral questions for all of us to wrestle with. The people who create the words and music we use in our worship have a right to be fairly compensated for their use. Following the copyright rules is a matter of respecting and honoring the inherent worth and dignity of the people whose creativity we benefit from, and in some cases of doing our part to ensure that they can keep a roof over their heads and food on their table. Isn’t that worth the effort?
The answers here are for informational purposes, and do not substitute for legal advice. Copyright law is quite complicated and 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 consult specific copyright holders and attorneys for information that applies to your precise situation. Those things said, we hope you find these general guidelines helpful.
Using Copyrighted Material in Worship
When is it necessary to seek permission to reproduce copyrighted work? The basic answer is “almost always.” Some cases:
- Reading aloud and performing: Can we read a poem, read an excerpt from a book, sing a hymn, have the choir perform an oratorio, or play a CD without getting permission from the copyright holders? Yes – only if the copyrighted material is not recorded or reproduced in any way. As long as each of these things is being done in your worship space, for your worshiping congregation, you are exempt from the normal prohibitions in the copyright laws against public performances.
- Showing a video: Can we show part of a copyrighted video in our worship service without getting permission? No. You need the copyright holder’s permission to show a video, even a clip, during your service.
- Sharing Recordings: Can we record copyrighted material in a worship service that we share online or on a CD without permission of the copyright holders? No. This applies whether or not the congregation charges money.
- Quotes: Can we print an excerpt of a book without securing permissions? It depends. Shorter quotes from a printed work are generally considered fair use. Longer excerpts are not. Many factors must be considered. See Nolo’s guidance on fair use for more information.
- Poetry: Can we reprint a whole poem without securing permissions? No. You also need permission to reprint excerpts of poetry in most cases. See Nolo’s guidance on fair use for more information.
- Printing lyrics: Is it legal to print lyrics in the Order of Service without obtaining permission, if the congregation owns a lesser or equal number of copies of those lyrics in a hymnal? No.
- Projecting lyrics: Many of our congregations and their musicians ask us about the legality of projecting the lyrics to hymns in their worship services. At the UUA, we understand that copyright law is subject to interpretation, rather than cut-and-dry, so we’ve solicited legal counsel to help us provide appropriate and fair guidelines. (Please note that our advice may differ from what’s reflected on the websites of other religious organizations.)Our legal counsel is that congregations may project the lyrics to any hymn as long as the congregation owns a single copy of the hymnal. Furthermore, the projection does not have to befrom the purchased copy; it’s permissible to project a photocopy or scanned copy or retyped lyrics. However, those projected lyrics or music may not be included in a videostream.
- Sheet music at events: For Unitarian Universalist gatherings where legal copies of music are not present—conferences, retreats, etc..—can lyrics and/or music be printed or copied without permission? No.
- Musician copies: Are instrumentalists allowed to copy pages of music to avoid/and or ease page turns without obtaining permission from the copyright holders(s)? Yes.
- Teaching Music: When teaching a song by rote, can one distribute lyric sheets for review outside of rehearsal without obtaining permission from the copyright holder(s)? No.
- Practicing Music: Can we copy a song and take it home for review without obtaining permission, if the copy is made from a legal copy owned by the church? No.
Simply put, permission is almost always needed for copyrighted material. Making copies without permission of the copyright holder(s) is virtually always a violation of copyright law.
Who Holds the Copyright?
Read carefully. Copyright is usually indicated after the ©. Sometimes it is the author or the publisher who holds the copyright, sometimes it is an organization. With music, the copyright holder of the words and the copyright holder of the music are not always the same. And even if a whole hymnal is copyright UUA, the songs within it all have different copyright holders.
Some material is in the Public Domain and the copyright restriction no longer applies. Many older works by Unitarian Universalist luminaries such as Channing, Thoreau, Fuller, Ballou, Murray, Emerson and their contemporaries are in the public domain.
Requesting Permission from the UUA
UUA Books: To request permission to reprint printed material for which the UUA owns the copyright, please read Copyright and Permissions for Hymn and Reading Use in UU Worship
updated December 2023 page.
UUA Hymns: If you’re looking to reproduce a hymn from one of our hymnals please contact for assistance. We will handle your request if the UUA holds the copyright. We can also provide spreadsheets of contact information for the copyright holders represented in the hymnals and blanket permissions for UUA-copyrighted music and readings, on request.
What’s a Congregation to Do?
At this point, many congregations are opting to avoid the copyright issues by editing out readings, hymns, anthems, projected images, etc. from their videos and podcasts. They are choosing to reproduce only the content that is original to the worship such as sermons and meditations written by their worship leaders.
Many congregations regularly request, and receive, permission to reprint lyrics, music, and text. It can be a complicated process with some copyright holders, but many are happy to grant a congregation permission to reproduce their work free of charge or for a nominal fee.
There are several organizations that sell licenses which cover, for an annual fee, permissions to reproduce music or show movies that are from specific publishers. With a license, permission from individual copyright holders is not needed as long as they are covered by the license. Because Unitarian Universalist congregations draw on many sources for worship, the content covered by Christian-oriented licensing organizations is just a small portion of the copyrighted material that many of our congregations use on a regular basis. However, some of our congregations have found it worth their money to buy licenses like WorshipCast, OneLicense, LicenSing, or CCLI.