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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