Obtaining permission is not really difficult if you plan ahead. Don’t wait until the last minute! Most often, obtaining permission requires making a written request or phone call to the copyright holder describing exactly what you plan on using, how and when it will be used, how many copies you plan to make, and information about your organization and who the contact person is. After you have made a request, you will receive a written response indicating that you have the permission, or if permission is not granted, a reason why you may not use the work. There may be a fee to reproduce the work. The fee is usually based on the way you plan to use the work. The permission procedure is the same whether you want to use a hymn, a part of a liturgy, the text of a poem, a photograph, a work of art, an article from a book or a magazine, or a graphic you have found on the Internet. You will usually also receive a copyright permission line that you will be expected to print with the copied text, in a program or bulletin, or elsewhere.
Song books and hymnals provide copyright information either on the page of each hymn or in an acknowledgments section usually located at the back of the book. Contact information for copyright holders and administrators may also be included in the book. If no copyright is listed for the hymn, it is probably in the public domain and may be reprinted without additional permission.
Separate copyrights can be applied to the hymn tune, musical arrangement, text, or translation.
A copyright license enables a congregation to reproduce hymns, liturgies, or songs from specific copyright holders without having to request or pay for permission each time you reproduce them. A license can save time and money if the congregation regularly reproduces congregational songs in worship folders or other media. Some licenses also grant permission to make audio recordings of hymns and songs that occur in worship. Licenses are not blanket permissions to reproduce whatever you wish at any time. You must carefully review copyright licenses for the limitations of each. Licenses may have reporting responsibilities to ensure that congregations remain within the parameters of the license and to determine compensation for composers and writers. If a congregation is to make good use of a license, they need to read the agreements carefully and consider what they really need and want to copy.
A copyright covers five exclusive rights. Whether the work is written, a visual creation, a musical composition, or even an arrangement or accompaniment for a piece of music, the originator has the following rights:
- to reproduce the work
- to adapt the work
- to distribute the work or sell it
- to display it publicly
- to perform the work for the public
This means that anyone other than the originator who wants to make copies of a work, adapt it, sell it, display it, or perform it, needs to get the permission of the creator of the work or the person or group that manages the copyright. If this seems daunting, remember that writers, composers, and artists really want you to use and enjoy their work, but because they support themselves and their families through their work, they expect you to respect their rights.
In very limited circumstances, fair use allows one or more of the rights to be exercised by someone other than the owner. There are four factors that govern whether something constitutes fair use: the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount of the work to be used, and the effect of the use on the potential market for it. Although copying something for criticism or teaching on a one-time basis is considered fair use, most often copying for congregational use is outside the fair use limits.
It is easy to download a file from a Web page — a posted graphic, original material, or even music files. Copyright laws presently apply to anything that is posted on the Web, whether it carries a copyright notice or not. Make sure that if you decide to use something you have found in cyberspace, you are as diligent about the copyright as you would be if the material was found in a book or hymnal.
Additional information may be found at the U.S. Copyright Office
and the Music Publishers' Association of the the United States