The Little Things: Illegal Worship


Magnifying GlassA new randomly posted series that I hope to birth here today is "The Little Things." The devil may be in the details, but the Bible says this:

One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.
—Luke 16:10 ESV

"The Little Things" will discuss those issues in the Christian life, both individually and corporately, that mark the difference between the way of the world and the way of Christ. Do the right little things and you'll be immensely blessed, but do the wrong and—well, you get the picture.

The lead for this is a testy issue: illegal worship. Now I'm not talking about unregistered Chinese house churches, but about a crime that goes on every day across the world.

Most people don't realize that when lyrics for songs are projected in public, those lyrics are subject to copyright laws. Be it a slide of handwritten words on an overhead projector or the latest top 40 Christian worship song on a Powerpoint presentation, if your church doesn't have a license to project those words to the worship song you are singing, it's against the law. Now we can debate whether music intended for praising God should be copyrighted or not if you wish, but the fact remains that almost all of it is. Christian Copyright Licensing International can give you more details.

I can almost hear the collective "So what?" ringing from the masses on this one, but what if God is displeased because we're willfully waving our hand at the whole issue? I for one don't want to think that Christians don't care about this point, but the collective shrug is unnerving. I know some people will say that control of this issue is in the hands of the U.N., the Illuminati, the Tri-lateral Commission, and (for you more liberal readers), good old Yale University's Skull and Bones, but the fact remains. If your church hasn't paid for the license to use the copyrighted songs you are singing in worship, then you are breaking the law.

Zacchaeus, noted Palestine tax hustler, on this issue:

And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold."

The Lord's response was

And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham."
—Luke 19:8-9 ESV

How interesting that Jesus absolved this diminutive defrauder and declared him righteous. Zacchaeus uttered no pronouncement of faith in Christ at that point other than to offer to pay restitution. How then can we who have declared our faith in Christ publicly going on flaunting this requirement of our laws regarding paying for licensing for worship music use?

Is your church not doing so well? Maybe this is the reason why. Just another hindrance we should be laying aside. Because in the end, little things matter.

19 thoughts on “The Little Things: Illegal Worship

  1. Anonymous

    I saw a poster once with this title: “Ten Good Reasons to Steal a Candy Bar.” It listed items like these:

    – We’re in a hurry and don’t have time to buy it legally.

    – We need it to prepare ourselves to serve God.

    – The people who made the candy bar make a lot of money and won’t really be affected if we do this.

    Following this it said, “Ten Good Reasons to Copy Church Music: See Above.”

  2. Hmmh. Interesting post about the cavalier attitude regarding copyrights. But it’s not surprising considering this day and age when music downloading has become second nature for a big section of the population. People just don’t give even a second’s thought to the issue.

    Perhaps this is another reason to send someone to the landfills to dig up the old hymnals and restore them back to the churches�you don’t have to worry about copyright issues. On the other hand, I imagine that all the stuff on xtian radio’s top twenty list is copyrighted.

    Now here’s a thought: what would happen if one of the big label xtian music publishers threatened to start suing churches for copyright infringements? Think scary lawyers showing up at the pastor’s office with “cease and desist orders.”

  3. That just sounds ugly! Our worship leader has some songs he has written himself. He hates the copyrights and wants to open an open-source community of worship and praise songs. I believe that may be the way to go.

  4. Anonymous,
    I like that. Curiously, though, I have not found any restrictions on a worship band playing a copyrighted song. The issue is writing down the lyrics and printing or projecting them for public use.

    The Archdiocese of Chicago (I believe it was Chicago) was sued for $200,000 and lost in a case like you are describing. The precendents are there, but it goes beyond precedent; it’s the right thing to do to pay the licensing fee. The CCLI site showed that for church of 250-499 it was like $250 for a yearly license.

    Now I’m not trying to shill for copyrights here, but simply point out how we compromise on the little things far more than we know. I’ve got to believe that few churches pay the licensing.

    My big question is how this is handled for small groups that meet and sing together using songsheets and such.

    The issue is that the cost is minimal and the abuse is wrong. Now if it were thousands of dollars a year to get a license, then I could see how it could be a hardship issue.

    I think the open source approach is great, but if I were a paid songwriter, how would I feel about it?

    I’ve written more than a hundred songs. Technically, all are copyrighted by the very nature of how copyrights operate in the United States. The novel I am writing is copyrighted by default without me having to technically get it copyrighted. Now I can do that copyright formally, but the law is written so it covers my work even if I don’t formally license the work. My author’s copyright extends to anything I write from the moment I write it as long as its purpose is understood. The law is both strict and loose. You almost have to say that something is completely public in order for it to be so. Even then, I believe a work like that still has fair use limits attached to it.

  5. Anonymous

    I understand the point that not paying licensing fees it wrong. On the other hand, the laws in question are also geared not so the songwriters make money (the intent of copyrights) but so that the corporations make money (the people who actually own the copyright), which is also wrong. The American corporate structure is counting on people to essentially allow themselves to be raped by laws that are, in and of themselves, sins. Did the Lord intend for us to stand by and allow sin to flourish because sinners have made laws allowing some to sin against us all? I don’t think so. I’m not advocating breaking the law; I’m advocating taking our rights back from the corporations.

  6. rev-ed

    Dan comment about the relative cost of a license is an important one. I serve a tiny country church, yet we shell out the bucks for our CCLI license every year. Not to do so would put an impediment into our worship relationship with our Savior.

    If one wants to protest the whole copyright idea, there has to be a better way than simply ignoring the law.

  7. Anonymous

    That just sounds ugly! Our worship leader has some songs he has written himself. He hates the copyrights and wants to open an open-source community of worship and praise songs. I believe that may be the way to go.
    Then he should use the “Creative Commons” license (see for more information), or a Public Domain statement, when publishing them.
    “Freely, freely, you have received. Freely, freely, give.” Some try to argue their way out of that mandate. I can’t do that. So the music I write, I release under a Creative Commons license (attribution style: you can do whatever you want with it, so long as you attribute its original authorship).
    The poster who says that copyright was intended to protect authors, not corporations, is correct. But the law is the law, and we should follow it so long as the law allows us to honor Jesus Christ and follow him.

  8. Anonymous

    Dan – you might know the answer to this..

    most bible translations have a copyright applied. How much of the copyrighted bible can you legally reproduce?
    I know you can get around this by just using KJV – but if you were to use the NIV – what’s the deal?
    Any ideas?

  9. Broken Messenger

    Zacchaeus uttered no pronouncement of faith in Christ at that point other than to offer to pay restitution. How then can we who have declared our faith in Christ publicly going on flaunting this requirement of our laws regarding paying for licensing for worship music use?

    Dan, you’re such a legalist! :o)
    Great post, couldn’t agree more.


    Why don’t the people they’re stealing from just forgive them?

    Why not ask for forgivness if you are stealing, and then refrain from doing it in the future? The burden is on us not to do, not to force others into forgiveness on what we have done. Yes, we must forgive all, but to willfully sin on such a small matter…why even go there? Just pay the .06 per song sung…

  10. Dan,

    Excellent topic and one that needed to be said. God is really “talking” to me lately about the difference between what is legal and expedient vs. what is ethical. But what is illegal should certainly not be done by Christians, no mattter how “small.”

    Now, I want to see if you tackle borrowing used software from someone and putting it into another computer. That also used to be illegal. I dont’ know if it still is.

  11. Anonymous wrote: most bible translations have a copyright applied. How much of the copyrighted bible can you legally reproduce? I know you can get around this by just using KJV – but if you were to use the NIV – what’s the deal? Any ideas?

    I think the copyrights of Bibles and reproduction of them falls under the auspice of that part of copyright law known as “fair use.” If you Google that term with “copyright,” I’m sure you’ll get a decent answer. Stanford University has an extensive copyright info center that should address this, too.

  12. gaddabout,

    A slightly off-topic aside:

    You bring up a good point that is not discussed enough in the Church in America.

    In most countries where the Church is really growing, pastors AREN’T paid to be full-time pastors. Most work second jobs. As far as songwriters go, anyone who’s been a musician long enough knows that working another job comes with the territory, right?

    Our paradigm in America is that everyone works one job and specializes. Maybe that idea is in error and we in the Church are not exploring it because it hits too close to home for our paid, full-time Christian leaders—the ones who would have to explore it.

    One of the reasons I believe the Church in America is out of touch with people’s forty to sixty hour per week work lives is that our pastorate has largely never worked a “real” adult job in their lives and have no clue what it’s like to be stuck in a cubicle for ten hours a day five days a week. If they did, we’d be seeing a whole lot different sermon series, I can promise you that.

    I remember Randy Frazee (now at Willow Creek) saying that employers will understand that you don’t want to work ten hours a day and will honor your request to only work eight. The reality is that those same employers will also honor you with the first pink slip when they have to decide how to downsize the department when the next reorg comes down the pike. The average person in America now works 48 hours a week and that is still rising. To think that companies don’t notice who is only putting in 40 is just ignorant. People want to keep their jobs and the requirement to do so has been raised. Frazee’s disconnect is a prime example of how a full-time pastorate should not be giving advice about things they know nothing about. It also painfully demonstrates that platitudes have outweighed serious discussion within the Christian community about how we can get off the treadmill and truly be countercultural in our work ethic.

    Back to the subject:

    Something about having much of the Church’s music copyrighted bothers me. But I am also bothered by people ripping it off when it IS copyrighted.

  13. Caleb W

    It seems to me perfectly plain from the Bible that unless following the law would cause us to disobey the law of God, we are obliged as Christians to respect the “powers that be”, even if the laws are silly, annoying or plain stupid. We can raise our voices to point out where the rules aren’t good (both “good” in a moral and non-moral sense) and try and get them changed – and I think intellectual property law is one of these areas – but while such laws are in place, we have to submit to the authorities over us. That can be costly, it’s not fun and it’s not cool, but it seems clear to me that that is what is right.

    I discussed Christian’s cavalier attitude to copyright law over on my blog last year in relation to copying CDs, which is very common among my fellow students and young people, including Christians. I’m reminded of a great line from Harry Potter, which is at the end of the trailer for the film of The Goblet of Fire: “You will soon face the choice between what is right and what is easy”. Ignoring copyright is easy, but it’s also wrong, not because the copyright law is inherently right, but because as Christians we are called to live peaceful lives in obedience to the authorities over us, in so far as this does not force us to sin.

  14. “I know you can get around this using just KJV.” hmmm… I have a KJV with a copyright notice in the front of it.

    This topic came up with a friend recently and I shared Dan’s thoughts nearly word for word with him. He couldn’t understand why Christians should copyright music meant to praise the Lord and asked me a rhetorical question about what did I think of a God who would copyright His word.

    I don’t believe it’s a matter of what’s right regarding copyright law. Like Dan said, we could debate that all day. But, of all people, if there’s a law to be obeyed, Christians should set the example and follow it, whether it’s with Christian music or secular music.

  15. Dan McGowan

    I’ll be just a bit of a devil’s advocate here – but first, let me clarify something. I am a songwriter. I have some songs “out there.” These songs are registered with CCLI and I make MILLIONS from them… well, okay, THOUSANDS… hmmm, no, I make HUNDREDS… well, okay, I think I’ve EARNED MAYBE a hundred bucks over the many years my songs have been with CCLI… point being – I live on both sides of this topic.

    Now – here is my question…

    I, and probably many of you, have been around, leading music and worship, for a number of years. And, believe it or not, there WAS a time BEFORE “CCLI.” And in that pre-CCLI era, churches sang “non-hymnal” songs. They projected lyrics using overheads (and before that, a guy held up a giant stone slab, I think.) Or, they printed the words on songsheets and handed them out. And people sand along and some of those people even worshiped.

    Then… a group of people decided that they better ESTABLISH some sort of LAW regarding the use of the songs because, after all, the writers of these songs had to be paid for their efforts. This sounds good and all – but before this law was created by men, it didn’t exist and no law was being broken.

    My issue here is that GOD DID NOT ESTABLISH THE CCLI. Man did. And now, in order to be a “good Christian” I need to FOLLOW that law.

    What if, tomorrow, man created a “Church Dress Code” law? And this code stated that “when leading worship, you MUST wear a coat and tie?” Would we all, now, need to OBEY that law in order to honor God?

    I am not against CCLI – but I am a tad tired of bowing to MAN’S laws when they are inserted into the mix for the sole reason to boost the income of those who invented the law! LOL… I’ll keep registering songs with CCLI, and I will keep logging the songs I use with CCLI. And I’ll keep trying to be true to the rules of CCLI as best as I can. But I am not going to “feel bad” or “convicted” if, on some occasion, I step outside the man-made laws of CCLI. I honestly think we have far more important things to be concerned about than “The Great CCLI Gods Who Watch Over Our Every Move.”

    comments in this post (c) 2006 by Dan McGowan. Unauthorized reprinting of any portion of these comments is prohibited and punishable by law.

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