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Copyrights during COVID-19

This article originally appeared as a part of the Mennonite Church USA series on Voices Together.


By Katie Graber and Bradley Kauffman

Copyrights background

Copyright laws and procedures protect intellectual property and pay people who make a living or supplement livelihood through artistic creation. Compensating artists is a material way to acknowledge and support their work — the hours of time, training, and craft they commit to creating words and music that enable and enrich our worship.

Where church music practices and copyright laws intersect, some strange and arbitrary realities constrain us. As we write, MennoMedia is securing permissions for Voices Together, establishing copyright contracts with contributors. If your congregation buys the printed version of Voices Together, a portion of the sales will pay the people or estates of those who wrote the songs and worship resources for any works under copyright. Since 1978 in the United States, copyright protection generally lasts up to 70 years after the death of the author, and in some cases 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation. That’s a long time! After that time, the copyright protection ceases and the underlying work becomes public domain.

MennoMedia is securing the rights that a publisher can offer users of a printed hymnal and an iPad app version. This means that worshipers can sing from the physical pew book or app during in-person worship without limitation.

Congregations using projection, however, are subject to regulations that a publisher cannot address. There is no legal mechanism for MennoMedia to extend rights for congregations to project or stream copyrighted Voices Together content. MennoMedia will provide the projection product, but the congregation has the responsibility to gain rights to use it. Copyright law provides artists and writers additional rights when content is consumed via a screen.

If a piece appears in Voices Together, the copyright holder(s) have consented to their song appearing in a durable print format. Many copyright holders do not extend similar decades-long permission for projection or streaming. Instead, the technology rights are issued via annual memberships that rely on periodic reporting of specific content. These rights are administered through two primary clearinghouse agencies: CCLI and OneLicense (the two contain repertoire that overlaps with one another and with Voices Together content). If someone has an original song represented by CCLI or OneLicense, how is their legal right to payment for projected images carried out? They are paid if (and only if) church office staff report that their song was used in worship on a particular occasion.


Copyrights and worship during social distancing

As congregations have moved to online worship during COVID-19, many are navigating new questions about copyrights for prerecorded or streamed services. Meghan Florian, who handles permissions at MennoMedia, has spoken to many congregations about how to manage this, and has given guidance to conference ministers in Mennonite Church USA via Zoom. She has been emphasizing the importance of securing permission for streaming rights — that is, owning Hymnal: A Worship Book, Sing the Journey, and Sing the Story does not give streaming or projection rights. Both CCLI and OneLicense subscriptions contain some of those collections’ songs as well.

A combination of reporting through those subscription services, contacting copyright holders personally, and using songs in the public domain allows many ways to legally include singing in online worship. MennoMedia has created a variety of demonstration videos of songs from previously released Voices Together samplers, and below are examples of how to secure permission to use them in online worship.

Here are songs that you may include if you report usage through the agency that licenses them (OneLicense or CCLI):

There will also be songs in Voices Together that have not been published elsewhere or that are not available through subscriptions. For these, you should contact the songwriters directly to ask for permission to use them — it is often possible to find contact information online. For example, the songwriter of Ososo (Come now, O Prince of Peace) has given Mennonite congregations permission to use this song through the summer. Here are some examples written by Mennonite artists (you may find songwriter information in the text on the video):

Songs in the public domain may also be sung, streamed, or arranged at any time because they are not copyrighted. If a congregation wants to make physical copies of a public domain song, they should receive permission from the publisher, the creator of that printed music (Hymnal: A Worship Book includes a single use permission to reprint public domain hymns). Here are some videos of public domain songs that will appear in Voices Together:

How can you find out if a song is in the public domain? Take Hymnal: A Worship Book as an example, which has an index of copyright holders at the back of the book. You may also look at the ascription at the bottom of each page which will include a copyright symbol if a song is copyrighted. For instance, #336 When Peace, Like a River lists the person who wrote the text and music, but does not have a copyright symbol. By contrast, #226 Tu has venido a la orilla (Lord, you have come to the lakeshore) includes names as well as copyrights and dates for Spanish text, music, and English translation. If your congregation wants to record or stream this song, you should report your use through a OneLicense membership.

Whether you use these songs or songs from other hymnals and online sources during this time of online worship, responsible use requires research and diligence in permissions procedures. Compensating artists is an issue of justice, fairness, and even gratitude. Paying musicians and writers also affirms their work as worthy and can encourage them to create more and others to aspire to create as well.


Katie Graber chairs the Intercultural Worship committee for the Voices Together project.
Bradley Kauffman is the general editor and project manager for the Voices Together project. 


The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.

Posted on: May 18th, 2020 by Voices Together Hymnal

5 Responses

  1. H A Peters Fransen says:

    I have been asking these questions since the beginning of the process. Early on I asked if one license and ccli and public domain would be adequate to cover the new hymnal I asked committee members and there was some early discussion least I thought there was creating a Mennonite license for those songs not covered in these two licenses. The last thing I heard was that you were encouraging those artists not in these two licenses to join them. How successful have you been?

    It was always our intent to work towards using the projection Edition primarily but buying three dozen I was surprised when we finally ordered that now a a minimum was 4 dozen. We worship on an average Sunday 60. This makes no sense. We had budgeted on the 3 dozen. books

    • Voices Together Hymnal says:

      We’re not sure where the idea of a Mennonite license may have been circulating. Maintaining copyrights even for a relatively small group of Mennonite writers would not ease the responsibilities that church offices hold in managing copyright. And MennoMedia does not have the overhead and administrative capacity to administer copyrights on behalf of individuals. However, our copyright agent has provided a streamlined opportunity for writers to opt in for OneLicense coverage as a part of their Voices Together copyright agreement.

  2. Donald Oswald says:

    ou say: “Congregations using projection, however, are subject to regulations that a publisher cannot address. There is no legal mechanism for MennoMedia to extend rights for congregations to project or stream copyrighted Voices Together content. MennoMedia will provide the projection product, but the congregation has the responsibility to gain rights to use it.”

    I understand that including copyrighted material in a service that is streamed live or podcasted (recorded and put on the internet) requires a license. Are you saying that a license is required to project copyrighted material in a worship service, even it it is not streamed or podcasted?

  3. Donald Oswald says:

    I may not have been clear in my question. I am asking: if we purchase the projection Edition of Voices Together, do we still need a license from CCLI / OneLicense to use the projection Edition in a worship service that is not streamed or podcasted?

    If the answer is “yes”, are all of the songs in Voices Together included under either CCLI or OneLicense?

    • Alyssa Bennett Smith says:

      Hello, Donald, and thanks for your question. This terrain can be confusing and seem arbitrary. Yes. If you’re using projection, you are subject to laws that apply to images viewed on a public screen. MennoMedia does not have a way to offer a product that bypasses this on your behalf. Maintaining memberships (including periodic reporting) with CCLI and OneLicense are the only ways to comply with the law and ensure remuneration is allocated to the artists your congregation values within your worship rhythms. To your second question; because the firm brokering permissions for us (GIA) offered the chance to opt-in to OneLicense representaiton, we believe most songs will be covered by OneLicense or CCLI. We don’t have hard data on that yet, but the vast majority should be engagable that way. Individuals who do not opt in will have their contact information available in the acknowledgements section of the collection.

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