The myriad of different laws and regulations that churches must comply with can seem bewildering and totally overwhelming at times.  We can sometimes feel that ‘ignorance is bliss’ but as we seek to follow Jesus and witness to Him, we need to “render unto Caesar, what is Caesar’s” and be careful to scrupulously obey the laws of the land.  One such area is the law of copyright.  

Churches often seek to make their services and publications as engaging as possible to a generation that is now used to high production values.   We add pictures to PowerPoints, publications and our websites but, even with the most scrupulous care this can still lead potential issues over copyright.  This article isn’t legal advice but is written to simply share knowledge, experience and to sign post you to the help that is available.

Case study – Stony Stratford 
I asked Rev. Keith Plant’s permission to share this real example with you.   Keith had been writing an article for the church’s website following the deaths of two well known celebrities. He carefully did a google search for ‘royalty free images’ and found an image of the celebrity that purported to be in the public domain.   It came as a shock when several weeks later, a letter dropped on the EFCC Office’s mat demanding £150.00 for breach of copyright from a company that had an interest in the copyright!  After looking into the matter, we discovered that it related to Stony Stratford and forwarded the unwelcome letter to Keith.  After negotiation, Keith was able to get the figure reduced for what was a completely innocent mistake, but it was a salutary lesson in the pitfalls of using images on a church website.

Firms can sign deals with various copyright holders to allow them to pursue copyright infringements. Simple trawls of the internet using names can easily reveal infringements for those seeking to find them.  It seems likely that this was probably the case here.


What is copyright?
Copyright law aims to protect the rights of the creators of literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works (including films, broadcasts, sound recordings and photographs) and gives the creator the right to control the way in which that material is used.  In practice, this means that someone who has produced and copyrighted material can legally require that it isn’t used, copied or distribution without their permission.

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988  sets out the acts which are the exclusive right of the copyright owner, which include copying the work, issuing copies of the work to the public, renting or lending the work to the public, performing, showing or playing the work in public, and communicating the work to the public. The Act also prevents anyone adapting the work and then performing one of these acts with the adaptation.

Copyright law rightly protects the creative process.   It is complex and easy to innocently break, but the good news is that there are some steps that can be taken to ensure that your church doesn’t fall foul of the law.


How can churches protect themselves from copyright infringement?

Using photographs
So, given the example above from Stony Stratford, is it possible to use photographs found online safely? The golden rule to remember is that you need to make sure you have permission for any images used either online or in your literature. There are a few sites which have a catalogue of free images in the public domain, such as or but Keith’s example demonstrates that even where something can appear to be a copyright free image, it often isn’t. There are also various websites which offer stock photos for a fee, such as Getty Images &   These may be a better alternative, but obviously come at a price.  Other good options are which is a very useful freely shared, (creative commons) photo website and Wikimedia is another useful stop for royalty free images.  You could also get in touch directly with the owner of the image and ask their permission, but in practice that may be difficult. Remember to always credit them as the copyright holder.   It must be recognised that this can feel like a minefield and perhaps the simplest alternative is to think whether you have one of your own photographs that makes the point you are seeking to make?  Or could you take a photograph that would cover it?  I did this recently with road sign that said ‘Changed priorities ahead’!  For more information on using photographs the Intellectual Property Office on the website may be useful.

Services and church events
Most churches now reproduce song lyrics either on paper or, more commonly, on overhead projectors, but unless they fall within the public domain (and there are complicated rules around when), there is still a legal obligation to get permission to use the lyrics in this way from the song writer or publisher to reproduce the words. The same applies to showing clips from films, using photographs and even performances of live music at an event if it has been restricted by copyright.   Copyright owners must be credited and their permission obtained to use the work in these ways.

This all sounds really daunting! Thankfully it isn’t as difficult as it first seems.  CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International) produces licences for churches that cover the use of song words, sheet music, films and performances of live music.  Once the licence is purchased, you should display it, give credit to the copyright owner and report your use to CCLI when reproducing words and music.   They have a large catalogue of music and film and a straight-forward record keeping process to allow you to acknowledge copyright.   CCLI has a lot of detailed advice, beyond the scope of this short article, on its website; including a ‘Copyright Health Check’ that can be taken to assess your compliance with the law. 

Since the advent of Covid19, churches have looked to reach their congregations with online services and these may involve pre-recorded music or, typically Youtube videos.  It must be remembered that Youtube is a personal use only platform and that to use Youtube videos in this way is to take them away from its original purpose.  A CCLI licence covers playing pre-recorded music in church.   I would strongly recommend reading the detailed advice from CCLI in their article ‘Staying connected with your congregation’ available on their website and being careful before doing something that could breach copyright.   If in doubt, find out!


Paul Walker, EFCC Office Manager   
May 2020

This information has been provided by the EFCC as a guide to churches only.
It is designed for the purpose of knowledge sharing only and does not constitute legal advice.