I am confused over the whole issue of copyrights. As the worship leader at our church, what do I need to know about copyrights and the songs we use?
The easiest rule of thumb to remember is this: no copy of copyrighted song may be made without permission from the copyright holder. The song itself should be thought of as a piece of property belonging to the copyright holder. Permission must be obtained to duplicated the song in any form (i.e. handwritten, photocopy, recording, etc.). To duplicate the song without permission is a violation of the law.
Copyright laws protect the rights of songwriters. These laws help assure songwriters that they will receive fair compensation for their works by those using them.
From your perspective, you need to be concerned about copyrights for the sake of your church. Making copies of songs, or even just lyrics (i.e. saved in video projection format, song sheets for your musicians or congregation, etc.) without permission, could potentially cause legal problems for your church. Technically, these copies would be illegal and a lawsuit could be brought by the copyright holder. This is not a pleasant thought, but nevertheless, a real possibility.
Even beyond the legal aspect, we as Christians should also be concerned about the moral aspect. We should never want to take advantage of or steal from others. But that’s what happens if we ignore copyrights.
Individually researching the copyrights of all the songs used by your congregation each year could be a project of staggering proportions. Beyond this, paying each individual copyright holder an average of $20 or more per song can be far too costly for most churches.
Fortunately, there is an organization, Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI), that can help with copyrights and song usage. For one annual fee based on the size of your congregation, CCLI will allow you non-commercial use of the songs (within certain guidelines) for the period of one year. The annual fee is relatively inexpensive considering the number of songs and usage freedom received.
Avoiding copyright legal problems by joining CCLI is important. However, for me the real issue is one of integrity. I must not break the law and take advantage of songwriters while at the same time leading people in worship. To do so would be a complete lack of concern for my brothers and sisters in Christ.