Real Law for Virtual Gatherings: Copyright and The Livestream Church

Over the past few weeks, the experience of church for all of us has changed drastically. COVID-19 has meant that we can no longer meet together physically. For most of us, we’re now all meeting through online streaming services. This presents some new challenges regarding copyright and licencing. In the face of such challenges, it can be tempting to adopt the attitude: it’s better to seek forgiveness than to ask for permission. Conversely, we might think that if we just stay ignorant that will keep our consciences clean. However, let me encourage you to not adopt either of these attitudes. Firstly, we are instructed to submit to the governing authorities (Rom 13:1-2). That means joyfully complying with the copyright laws of our country. And secondly, workers deserve their wages (1 Tim 5:18). For many of those who produce the songs we use in church, writing and recording music is not only their ministry but their livelihood. Consequently, it is right and fitting that they receive the royalties which they are due. By being compliant with our copyright laws, this ensures that royalties are paid correctly. 

Workers deserve their wages (1 Tim 5:18). For many of those who produce the songs we use in church, writing and recording music is not only their ministry but their livelihood. By being compliant with our copyright laws, we ensure that royalties are paid correctly.

The aim of this article is to answer the key questions around these issues to equip churches to be above reproach regarding the copyright laws of our country.

Christian Copyright Licencing International (CCLI) is the main organisation providing licences to comply with copyright and licensing law. Their five licence options are:

  1. Church Copyright Licence – allows for projection/printing of lyrics and for services to be recorded with music for small private use. Full details here.
  2. Music Reproduction Licence: This allows a church to reproduce music in hardcopy and digital forms from a master copy. This is designed as an add-on to the Church Copyright Licence. Full details here.
  3. Church Video Licence: This allows a church to play scenes from movies in services and to play full movies at other church events during the week. Full details here
  4. Public Performance Licence: This allows for public performances of live music at non-church service events. Full details at PPL Terms & Conditions.
  5. Streaming Licence: This allows a church to livestream their service, or a pre-recorded service, that includes live music on the church’s website or other streaming platforms. Full details here.

So which of these licences do I need to livestream my church service and what do these licences cover? Hopefully these key questions below will help you answer this.

1. Do I need a special licence to livestream our church services that include live music?

Yes. You will need the Streaming Licence. This licence is relatively inexpensive and, like all CCLI licences, is priced according to the size of your church. You will also need to make sure that the songs that you are steaming as part of your services are covered by CCLI. You can do this by looking the song up on the CCLI website. Note: If you don’t include music in your service, you don’t require a Streaming Licence.

2. What is not covered by the Streaming Licence?

Any copyright issues that are covered by the Church Copyright Licence or the Music Production Licence are not covered by the Streaming licence. Playing recorded songs from platforms such as Spotify is not covered by this licence. Only pre-recorded covers done by your church or live music can be played under the Streaming Licence. No video content is covered under this licence either. That means no YouTube or parts of movies can be part of the service.

3. If we have a Video Licence does that mean I can use YouTube and parts of movies in our live streams?

No. This licence only covers a physical gathering.

4. Is there a licence that allows us to use YouTube or parts of movies during our livestream church services?

No to both of these. YouTube is for private use only. Using YouTube as part of a live stream would be in breach their Terms & Conditions (there is an exception to this explained in the answer for question 8).

5. Is there any extra reporting that needs to be done for live streaming a church service?

Yes, if the service has been recorded. This should be reported under the Church Copyright Licence as ‘1 x RECORD’ for each song. You will also need to keep on reporting as you would have already been doing under your Church Copyright Licence and Music Reproduction Licence.

6. Can we use recorded music from platforms such as Spotify as part of our live stream church service?

It depends. Firstly, there is no licence from CCLI that covers this for livestream or physical gatherings. This means that a church needs to have a One Music Australia licence to play music from platforms like Spotify to be included in any part of the service (this applies to both a physical gathering and a livestream). If you do have a One Music Australia licence, you are able to stream your normal activities on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook provided that you do not carry any advertising or seek to charge for the stream. One Music Australia also advised that you should be aware that there are existing content-ID algorithms and procedures in place on these platforms worldwide, outside of their direct control, which may cause your video to be blocked or taken down and there may be additional rights clearances required. In order to avoid these issues, their advice is to use a closed group through platforms such as Zoom or Skype. As a church you may want to think through the evangelistic issues to do with this.

7. What about using images from the internet? Are they ok to use in a livestream church service?

To use a picture as part of your livestream, or physical gathering, you will need the express permission of the owner of the image unless the image is from the public domain. A public domain image is an image whose copyright has expired or never existed in the first place. Websites such as Canva, Flickr, Unsplash, Wikimedia Commons, Magdeleine and ISO Republic are helpful resources for finding public domain images. It is also important to note that none of these sites guarantee to only use license-free images, but they usually make the distinction clear. Just because you are able to find the image on Google Images, does not mean that it is part of the public domain. If you would like further clarification on whether you are able to use an image or not, this website has a helpful flow chart called, “Can I Use that Picture”.

8. What about images from newspapers or other such publications? Are they ok?

Yes, if they are being used for comment in a sermon or something similar. “A person can use copyright material for the purpose of criticism or review without infringing copyright, provided that they acknowledge the author and title of the work and the dealing is ‘fair’.”[1]

This Fair Dealing legislation would also allow for part of a YouTube video to be used. This would only apply if it falls under one of the Fair Dealing exceptions that can be found in the full PDF. Again, be careful when using YouTube. If you are livestreaming through their platform, the automatic YouTube content-ID algorithms may block or takedown your livestream.

9. As these are exceptional times, are there exceptions to these laws?

No, unless you have express permission from the owner of the material you are wanting to use. In this vain, EMU Music has made a list of free music resources that churches are able to use without a Streaming Licence. These can be found here. Sovereign Grace Music has also made all their music available to use until the end of May (the time frame may be extended) without needing a Streaming Licence. More details can be found here.

In short, each church will need at least the Church Copyright Licence, Music Production Licence and a Streaming Licence to stream any church services that include music. As churches seek to navigate their way through this extraordinary season, we will not only need plenty of inventiveness, but also no shortage of godliness as well. Part of what that will mean is complying with the copyright and licensing laws of our land.

[1] Australian Copyright Council, “Fair Dealing: What Can I Use Without Permission?,” (2020): 2. The full PDF can be downloaded here. For a fuller list of all copyright exceptions click here to download the PDF.