Worshipping Online: New World, New Risks
Episcopal churches have leaned into the tectonic shift in worshipping brought on by the persistence of COVID-19. Online services allow congregations to reach people near and far, swelling congregations in both size and geographic diversity. Today, as we tiptoe out of the pandemic, cyber worshipping continues. However, this new frontier is not without hidden risks.
“Yes, we have the traditional behind-the-big-red-doors format,” Barbara Martin, Canon for Administration, Episcopal Diocese of Maine, says. “But we also have streaming, podcasts, social media. I think it’s all a new and exciting way to worship and spread the gospel. And we know from data analyses that we are reaching more people in different places: in Florida, California, England—around the world.”
Yet financial risks loom—if churches fail to take precautions.
Reciting a poem or singing a song or hymn from a purchased hymnal is commonplace in churches. This is acceptable for in-person religious services protected by the Religious Services Exemption of copyright law; but the exemption does not cover streamed, podcast, or prerecorded services posted on the internet, because online services are broadcast beyond church walls.
While churches are free to use works in the public domain, they must be wary of violating copyright laws by including the protected works of others in online services without permission. Use of these works requires the written permission of the copyright owner, which church leaders must obtain by purchasing the appropriate license.
Some might think, “Oh, no one will notice,” but artists and their lawyers are now on the prowl for infringements, particularly because dollars are involved. Many create internet alerts so they’ll be informed when their material is posted. They then check whether the user has obtained permission and paid a licensing fee.
Copyright law can be confusing. Fortunately, the Church Insurance Companies and Church Publishing Incorporated, two divisions of CPG, can help.
When Canon Martin recognized the inherent copyright problems posed by online worship and the increased risk of liability during the pandemic, she turned to CPG for help. She wanted easier access to information and knew that some of her colleagues around the Church would benefit too. At her suggestion, Church Insurance and Church Publishing collaborated on a new resource for congregations interested in online worship.
The copyright risk management fact sheet contains FAQs and links to resources for licenses to reprint, podcast, and record hymns and songs. It also connects users to a customizable worship-planning tool available through Church Publishing and a resource for obtaining performance licenses for a library of 29 million songs.
“This resource will give clients comfort, a sense of knowing what rules to follow, especially with digital worship being a rising trend for many of them,” Akina Warner, CPG’s Planning Specialist for Communications & Research, says. “Just having the right resources at your fingertips frees you from having to do the research yourself. Our fact sheet clarifies the risks for you.”
Canon Martin agrees, adding, “This document encourages respect for copyright law. It promotes different ways of thinking and tells you how to go about getting the information you need in order to be compliant.”
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