Doing the (Copy)right Thing

Doing the (Copy)Right Thing

Last week's column dealt with the topic of copyright, a legal and justice issue based on the fact that music and lyrics belong to the person(s) who composed them. They cannot be used or copied without the rightful owner being acknowledged and recompensed in some form.

Churches, like all users of music, must be aware of their copyright responsibilities. Permission needs to be obtained if a piece of sheet music or a hymn text is covered by copyright and a parish wants to reproduce it, for example by photocopying it for the choir or making a slide to use in liturgy, or adapt it by altering the music or lyrics in some way, or publish it in a hymn book or service booklet.

The simplest way for parishes to ensure that they are covered for copyrighted material is to have multiple copies of one or more hymnbooks for the assembly, and/or to take out a church copyright licence.

There are various types of licences available to churches for the copying of lyrics or music or, in some cases, both. There is no one licence that covers the copying of all types of music or lyrics.

When a piece of music that is in copyright is to be reproduced in some way, the first step is to check that it is covered by the parish copyright licence. Licensing agencies provide a list of the repertoire for which they administer the rights.

Users also need to ensure that the terms of the licence cover the way in which the parish wishes to reproduce and use the material: copying the full score for the choir, making a PowerPoint slide of the words, publishing the text in an order of service, and so on.

If the licence does not cover the piece of music or how it is to be used, separate permission needs to be obtained from the relevant copyright owner directly or a special one-off licence organised.

If the licence covers both the work and the activity, then a parish is permitted to use it, provided that the conditions of the licence are followed concerning acknowledgments, keeping records and retaining copies.

How copyright permission is acknowledged depends on the licence, but it must be displayed exactly as the terms stipulate. For example, a Word of Life International licence requires the composer and copyright owner to be shown near the title of the song/ hymn. At the end of the song or the booklet, the words "Used with permission, Word of Life International Licence number ......." must be printed.

If works are transcribed to an overhead transparency or booklet, the licence holder must own at least one published copy of the song lyrics from which the words are taken and the words must come directly from that published hymnbook or songbook, not a photocopied sheet.

This might sound a little complicated, but it really isn't. AMCOS (Australasian Mechanical Copyright Owners' Society) and APRA (Australasian Performing Right Association) have published a helpful booklet called "Music Copyright for Churches". It can be downloaded from

Elizabeth Harrington