Copyright matters

Should the church care if anyone’s paying the piper?

September 23, 2020 | Feature | Volume 24 Issue 20
Joanne De Jong | Alberta Correspondent
Musician Darryl Neustadter Barg is MC Manitoba’s director of communications and CMU’s media production coordinator. He is pictured leading worship with Bruno Cavalca at the 2019 MC Canada assembly in Abbotsford, B.C. (Photo by Jane Grunau)

Life is funny. When something breaks down in the church, whether an oven or an elevator, we fix it. And if we can’t fix it, we buy a new one. We understand that physical property must be paid for.

But what about intellectual property? What if we have no one who can write songs, worship materials or a Christmas play? Why do churches often resist getting out their chequebooks when it comes to paying composers, photographers and artists?

Until recently, many Mennonite churches had never pre-recorded their services, used Zoom, or livestreamed anything. But then COVID-19 hit. Suddenly everyone was struggling to learn the copyright laws, and questions and frustrations began to arise as people discovered that they needed permission to use people’s work, whether it was a song, musical arrangement or worship material. What had previously been done in the privacy of the church was now online for the world to see, which meant new rules and accountability.

According to Ev Buhr, Edmonton First Mennonite Church’s office administrator, “It’s hard for people to understand that just because we own 300 hymnals, we don’t have permission to print 300 copies of a song in that book.”

Copyright regulations explain that purchasing a song book means you have paid for the permission to sing from it, but not for permission to photocopy, project, record that music, or use it online, even if you are just using the material in a private Zoom meeting or service. Anything online requires a streaming licence, which can be purchased from CCLI ( or One License (

Another thing to note is that those who write the hymns and those who compose the music may have their own separate copyright permissions. 

Bible translations published later than 1925 are copyrighted material. Copyright permission for the RSV, NRSV and Common English Bibles currently allows livestreaming. 

Buhr has spent countless hours figuring out what the church can and cannot do. She encourages worship and song leaders to submit their songs and worship materials a week-and-a-half in advance, so she can have time to obtain the permissions. She recommends that churches consider designating a copyright point person. 

Not long ago, she had to email the Church of Scotland to get permission to use a worship resource at the back of Sing the Journey, a supplement to Hymnal: A Worship Book. That takes time. She has created multiple documents explaining copyright guidelines for her community.

‘Invisible victims’

It hasn’t been easy for many churches to figure out how to get permissions, and with that comes the questions: “Should the church care?” and, “Why bother?”

For some, it is as simple as being committed to obeying the law. In Canada, the minimum penalty for non-commercial copyright infringement is $100 and the maximum is $5,000. Commercial copyright infringement fines start at $20,000.

“We are not above the law,” Buhr says.

Darryl Neustaedter Barg is director of communications for Mennonite Church Manitoba, the media production coordinator for Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) in Winnipeg, and a musician. He has received many calls from churches trying to understand the copyright rules, and they are often surprised by the requirements. He says he is not an expert but he tries his best to help.

In Neustaedter Barg’s opinion, “This is not as much a legal issue as an ethical issue.” Some question, “You mean I have to pay to photocopy two pieces of paper?” He frames it this way: “Where do we draw the line? What if someone steals one tomato from your garden? Or 10 tomatoes? Is there a difference?”

Whether professional or amateur, the appropriation of any work is not considered ethical. Once something is created, it is automatically copyrighted, and the intention of the copyright holder cannot be assumed. Some freely give their work away because it is not their main source of income, but others are trying to make a living serving the church and should be able to receive a just and living wage for their work. Shouldn’t they?

Donita Wiebe-Neufeld, Mennonite Central Committee Alberta’s development coordinator and writer, describes many musicians, writers, and artists as “invisible victims.” “So many are just trying to survive,” she says.

Another group that is disadvantaged are those in the Global South, who rarely have any copyright protections. Stories are told of musicians using folk songs from other countries, assuming the owners can’t be found, and then creating their own arrangements, which are then copyrighted. 

Karla Braun, editor of the Mennonite World Conference (MWC) communications team, says MWC endeavours to properly credit contributions from any artist, no matter what country they are from. In her experience, Mennonites from the Global South are generous when sharing their creative work, as are those from North America and Europe.

Even if an artist or musician is a professional, there is a shared motivation to serve Christ and build up the church. 

Adam Tice

Adam Tice, a professional Mennonite hymn writer, who served as text editor for the new Voices Together hymnal, was initially motivated to write Mennonite hymns because he realized a lot of the theology expressed in worship was coming from other traditions. A desire grew to bring Mennonite theology to Mennonite singing. 

Surprisingly, he discovered that other denominations had a real appetite for songs with Anabaptist theology. His No. 1 hit on One License is “The Church of Christ Cannot Be Bound,” a song inspired by a Menno Simons quotation: “True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant . . . .” The song is now part of at least eight denominational hymnals and has been translated into multiple languages. 

Carol Penner, a Mennonite writer and assistant professor of theological studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ont., describes serving the church as an artist as “a labour of love.” Her passion to write worship material for the wider church came when she realized there were not many Mennonite resources online. She says she “strongly believes that if you read good resources, you’ll be more thoughtful when you write your own.”

Wiebe-Neufeld wonders if the complexity of copyright practices will actually push more congregations to write their own material: “I would like to see more creativity bubbling up in our congregations. Even if it is not as professional, that’s okay.”

While freely offering her material online, Penner’s only request is that the work be acknowledged. She does not want people to mention her name in a church service, but rather prefers the acknowledgement to be in the bulletin or projected discreetly. She wants her work to be used and says feedback motivates her to keep creating.

A better question

Perhaps a better question than “Should the church care about copyright?” could be, “How can the church show appreciation to those who serve the church tirelessly through the creative arts?”

According to Bradley Kauffman, Voices Together’s general editor, the committee members found it really meaningful when a group in the Eastern United States started a GoFundMe page to show appreciation for all the volunteer work, thought and prayer the committee did on behalf of the church.

Other ways of showing appreciation can be through an encouraging email or call, or by offering to sponsor further training for the creator. And, of course, to report usage. Tice says a large portion of his royalties come from the required reporting of song use on One License. Very little comes from hymnal sales, which amounts to 12.5 percent of the sale price divided between all of the contributors. 

Kauffman says the church should care “because we care about relationships. All songs and materials are born out of relationships. Songs and words chosen for worship are the foundation of the church’s ministry; because it’s so central to worship and identity, we should value these relationships.”

Professional singer/songwriter Bryan Moyer Suderman agrees. He hopes that the church would see copyright as less of an obligation and more as an opportunity and invitation to relationship. He tells the story of a United Church of Christ minister who came across his music, contacted him for permission to use it, and subsequently built a relationship that has lasted many years. The friendship has grown through calls and emails, and he has even been hosted at least three times in her family’s home in Boston.

Because Moyer Suderman cares about his relationships with his faith family, he has placed these words on his website: “Please know that my approach to ‘permissions’ for congregational use of any/all of my songs is this: ‘That’s what songs are for! Please use them, if you feel they may be useful! I give my permission gladly and enthusiastically.’ ” This permission is primarily meant for one-time usage, and more details are available at

Seeing copyright through the lens of faithful discipleship, relationship and justice can motivate us to joyfully do our best to follow the copyright rules and support those who work in creative ways to build up the church.

Practical advice

Knowing that all creative work is meant to be relational, here are some practical rules to follow in support of the church’s creators: 

  • Pay for the licences you need. According to Kauffman, One License will cover at least 90 percent of the Voices Together hymnal, including worship resources. CCLI covers more modern songs. Cost is based on congregational size. A streaming licence must be added if doing anything online.
  • Report the material you use. One License requires regular reporting for each song used, while CCLI does sampling.
  • Permission must be sought out for material not covered by the One License and CCLI licences. Most song books have some contact information inside their covers. Permission to use videos, images and other forms of art may require more investigation.
  • Songs in the public domain do not need licensing. The song is in the public domain if the composer or writer has been dead for over 70 years, or if the copyright has expired. To learn more, visit

Our song writers, composers, musicians, artists, writers and photographers are not looking for accolades or big bucks. They are working hard to use their gifts in service to the Body of Christ. Prayerfully considering ways to show appreciation, beginning with due diligence in reporting and following copyright laws, will go a long way.

Should the church care? Yes, because copyright matters. 

—Corrected Sept. 25, 2020

For discussion

1. How often do you think about copyright when making a photocopy or a scan? What are some things the church does without realizing that copyright laws apply? Have we become more aware of copyright concerns because of more online worship services? 

2. What is your response to Joanne De Jong’s question: “Why do churches often resist getting out their chequebooks when it comes to paying composers, photographers and artists?” Do you think Mennonite churches are worse than others?

3. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using professional music and worship resources rather than amateur offerings? How much are you willing to pay for a wide variety of music and worship resources? Are you eagerly awaiting what the new Voices Together resources will add to our worship?

4. De Jong suggests that churches should try to show appreciation to those who serve the church through the creative arts. Who are the creative artists in your church community? What are some ways to encourage them and to foster new creativity?

—By Barb Draper


Online resources

Musician Darryl Neustadter Barg is MC Manitoba’s director of communications and CMU’s media production coordinator. He is pictured leading worship with Bruno Cavalca at the 2019 MC Canada assembly in Abbotsford, B.C. (Photo by Jane Grunau)

Bryan Moyer Suderman is a Mennonite singer/songwriter. (Photo by Julie Moyer Suderman)

An example of how to properly acknowledge a song by naming the creator, arranger and publishing company, and providing a statement of permission from the licensing company (complete with licence number). Taken at an Edmonton First Mennonite Church online service on July 26. (Screenshot by Joanne De Jong)

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This article does an excellent job of examining various perspectives around copyright and religious organizations. I particularly appreciate the careful attention that is given to providing fair and equitable financial and social compensation for creators and artists. However, I would also recommend that religious organizations pay equal attention to what is reasonable and fair for users of copyright materials. Balance is an important part of the Copyright Act; the Supreme Court emphasizes that “dissemination of works is also one of the Act’s purposes, which means that dissemination too, with or without creativity, is in the public interest.”

Religious organizations receive very few mentions in the Canadian Copyright Act, and the sections where religious organizations are mentioned have not been updated to reflect the current digital era. This is unsurprising, as the financial interests surrounding copyright and religious institutions are limited in comparison to other sectors (ex. education). Rather than interpret these omissions in a way that is fearful and unreasonably deferential to copyright holders and copyright collectives, I would encourage churches to think critically about the fairness and unfairness of particular use cases. I would also encourage churches to think through the costs and benefits of adopting copyright policies that entail unreasonable administrative burdens.

Canadian court decisions regarding the interpretation copyright law are rightly attentive to the public interest and common practice. For example, many of the educational uses that are permitted in the current Canadian Copyright Act were not defined or delineated in previous copyright legislation. I would encourage churches to interpret current copyright legislation thoughtfully, and with equal attention to the rights of copyright holders and the users of copyright materials.

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