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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Keeping it legal

Copyright laws and the church

Britt Vickstrom, Bettendorf, Iowa, learned the basics of copyright law as a student at Wartburg Seminary, Dubuqe, Iowa. So when she moved to a pastoral call where the congregation used the resource Sundays and Seasons, she knew it was important to clarify what could be legally printed in the bulletin.

“I was confused about reproducing hymns,” she said. “I wanted to make sure we were obeying the law and respecting hymn writers. I found out it was a lot more complicated. You can’t just print everything as some assume.”

Martin Seltz, publisher for worship and music at Augsburg Fortress, the ELCApublishing ministry, said, “Many congregations are becoming more savvy about copyright law. However, there are still some who believe that because they are religious institutions, they are exempt, or that their reprinting of copyrighted materials without permission is fair use.”

Owning hymnals doesn’t give congregations the right to print, project or record their contents without permission of the copyright holder.

Intellectual property

Michael Moore, copyright administrator for Augsburg Fortress, said most congregations don’t think in the realm of intellectual property. Yet even the founders of the U.S. thought it important enough to place in the first article of the Constitution. Any concrete item that is produced by someone is intellectual property owned by its creator who may have the sole right to copy, distribute or sell that item.

Moore encourages congregations to think of themselves as weekend publishers. That means they need to play by the rules that any publisher has to follow. 

Moore calls music “a big bugaboo” because it’s so complex. A hymn may have at least four different copyrights attached to it through its text, tune, arrangement and translation. To be able to print, project or record music requires the permission of the copyright holder too. 


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