UCC General Counsel Warns Against Using Copyrighted Material Without Permission

1/22/2014

by Eric Anderson

CLEVELAND (01/22/2014) -- In a message being widely circulated among the conferences of the United Church of Christ, the denomination's General Counsel, Don Clark, renewed a warning against using copyrighted materials in church publications. Houses of worship are as subject to the law as any other institution or individual: and there have been cases of successful infringement lawsuits against churches in recent years.

"Poems, songs, hymns, speeches, and written, visual, or oral works of most any kind, are the intellectual property of their author/creator," Clark wrote to the UCC's conference ministers. "They should not be used without express permission."

"Settings of the United Church of Christ continue to post the works of others on web sites, publish it in newsletters, and duplicate it elsewhere," Clark lamented. "This often triggers claims of copyright violation and demands for statutorily prescribed monetary damages."

Just last fall, UCC churches in both Connecticut and Massachusetts were sued for copyright infringement connected with a single poem: "The Dash," by Linda Ellis. In both cases, the poem had been published to the church's website -- in one case in a newsletter, and in the other a pastor's sermon -- and the author's permission had not been given.

"Authors and other content providers have every right to control the distribution of their work," says the Rev. Eric Anderson, the Connecticut Conference's Minister of Communications and Technology, who has co-led copyright workshops for authorized ministers' Boundary Education. "That's all copyright really is: the ability of a creator to give permission for, and receive compensation for, the publication of what they've made."

Copyright has a clause of its own in the United States Constitution, in which Congress receives the power to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." Under current law, that time period is the author's life plus seventy years, while all works first registered in the United States before 1923 have now entered "the public domain." Since 1989, copyright is automatic for anything that has entered a "final form;" no registration is required.

The advent of the Internet has made it much easier for content creators to find their work online, and to pursue their rights.

Fortunately, says Anderson, there are artists who will make their work available, and a system has emerged to help people identify them. The Creative Commons licensing system helps authors, musicians, photographers, and video producers to designate how others can use their work, if they choose to let others use it without compensation, limiting it to non-commercial use, for example, or prohibiting it from being modified.

Creative Commons has created a web portal to facilitate searches for licensed materials through several online media repositories.

In other cases, a request may be enough. The Rev. Alison Buttrick-Patton, who also co-leads the copyright workshop for clergy, had that experience when she found a particular graphic design online which she hoped to use for a bulletin cover at the Saugatuck Congregational Church UCC in Westport. She wrote to the artist, who offered her a limited use license at a reasonable price.

Performance rights and recording rights are different, Anderson observes. Many churches have subscribed to licensing programs that permit them to photocopy many songs for congregational singing: but that does not confer to right to record them and distribute them over the Internet. Some of those services have begun to offer "mechanical license" programs as well.

"If it's not your work, ask permission," says Anderson. "If you don't know whose it is, look it up, and then ask permission. And if you can't find the author, and can't be sure it's in the public domain, then...

"Don't use it. Really. Just don't use it."

Editors Note Dec. 2016: The Rev. Eric S. Anderson is the former Minister of Communications and Technology for the Connecticut Conference UCC. He is now pastor of The Church of the Holy Cross, in Hilo, HI.