Media has become a staple for a thriving and progressive children’s ministry. Flannelgraph has officially taken the path of the T-Rex, bellbottom jeans and the cassette tape. The cutesy Bible songs and finger plays that I grew up with have been replaced with upbeat worship music and edgy videos. It’s an exciting time for children’s ministry! However, with the ever-increasing use of media for ministry comes a deeper responsibility to use those resources properly.
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.” While that might be the case in some situations, when it comes to using copyrighted material, it’s definitely not. Yes, I’m talking copyrights here. Don’t turn the page to the next article—stick with me! Fact is, you probably need to read the rest of this article. It’s likely that your ministry is guilty of violating copyright laws in one way or another. While copyright laws can be tricky and trying to make sense of them will certainly induce a migraine, that doesn’t mean we can avoid them.
I think there are three primary reasons for copyright infringement: ignorance, laziness and apathy. Let’s begin with ignorance. “Copyright, what’s a copyright?” I’m glad you asked.
In layman’s terms, a copyright is a documented legal protection of someone else’s creation, usually referred to as their “intellectual property.” When someone creates a song, a poem, a book, a video, that material is their intellectual property and is therefore protected from bandits like well-meaning children’s leaders who want to make 100 bootleg copies of their work. As a result, the burden lies on you, the user, to obtain proper permissions from the copyright holder before using it. This process can be as simple as calling the publisher or artist and asking for permission, but usually involves a series of emails and probably a small fee for obtaining said permission. (Note: some material is classified as “public domain,” meaning that the content isn’t covered by intellectual property rights. In this case, the work is available for use without permission.)
Perhaps you know all about copyrights, but you suffer from laziness. Okay, so laziness might be a bit harsh. I’ve been there; you discover an awesome video in the eleventh hour that would be perfect for this weekend’s service! But you don’t have time to obtain the appropriate permissions, so you use it anyway. Those of us who suffer from “last minute syndrome” need to adapt our practices so that, when we find that amazing, earth-shattering video or song, we’ll have plenty of time to get permission to use it. On the other hand, there may be some of you who just simply don’t want to put in the work, the emails and phone calls, required to obtain use permission. I guess that would be classified as laziness.
Finally, I am certain that some of our colleagues simply suffer from a general apathy regarding copyright laws. In fact, I fear that of the three primary reasons listed here for infringement, this might be the most prevalent. Perhaps you’ve been perpetually and quietly breaking copyright laws. Maybe you’re thinking, “We’ve been doing this for years and it’s never been an issue.” If you’ve been crossing that creative line and haven’t had a second thought, I hope this article will change that. As an analogy, if I were to discover a brilliant method of stealing apples from my local grocery store, one at a time every other week, getting away with it for years and saying things like, “It’s only an apple; it’s not like anyone is going to notice it,” I am still guilty of stealing. If you’re in that category, it’s time to stop. Seriously, knock it off. Put the apple back.
In recent years, I’ve mingled in the world of songwriting. I make my best attempt to create original music for our kids in KidsWorld. Now, I’m no Tomlin, but as an aspiring songwriter, I put a great deal of effort in writing, recording and protecting my songs. The process has given me a whole new appreciation for the importance of using creative resources responsibly.
As an example, last year I was faced with a dilemma. Our pre-K summer camp was quickly approaching and we decided to compile a CD of kid-friendly worship music to give out to our 200+ campers. While I was busy writing original music for our elementary summer camp CD project, I just didn’t have the time to write and record another album for pre-K. So, I scoured through projects from other artists and found a handful of brilliant songs I wanted to include on our pre-K project. Now, I could have taken two avenues in this endeavor. I could have taken the easy road, carelessly copied the songs I wanted to use, distributed the CDs to our kids and called it a day. After all, it’s not as if we were selling them. Who would really know?
The other avenue, the one I chose to take, involved me contacting the publishing companies that held the copyrights of the songs I wanted, signing an agreement, paying for mechanical and master licenses and then copying the songs, with both permission from the artist and a clear conscience. As a result, I’ve built a relationship with the publishers of the songs and we used their music again for our second pre-K summer camp CD.
I find that many artists, particularly those who create resources for children, are more than happy to share the work they’ve created. They want their material to be used, their songs to be heard, and their videos to be seen! All you need to do is ask. Sure, it might take longer and cost more but in the long run, it’s the right thing to do.
I know what many of you are thinking, “My resource budget is minuscule. How can I afford to purchase every resource that I need?” My colleague and friend, Matt Guevara, summed it up with, “I think the rub is that we work with small budgets, so it’s easy to cross the line in the name of stewardship.” He makes a valid point; it’s easy to justify the occasional offense using the budget defense. Matt goes on to say, “For some churches, doing things the right way means not doing them at all.” So, if you find yourself torn between infringing on copyright laws or doing without, do without. It may require some creativity on your part to find alternative resources or may simply require asking your church leadership for a budget increase. Whatever your options, breaking the law shouldn’t be one of them.
Here’s where the rubber meets the proverbial road.
Copyright laws, however pesky and complex, are designed by our government to protect the tangible works of creative minds. Romans 13:1 commands, “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” In other words, we are required to abide by the laws set by our government, regardless of how cumbersome or unnecessary they may seem. In addition, if you’ve ever taught your kids the Ten Commandments, you’re aware of how God feels about stealing (Exodus 20:15).
So, for the sake of being obedient to Scripture, you must abide by copyright laws. For the sake of honoring that person who devoted their God-given abilities and worked diligently to create the resource, you must abide by copyright laws. For the sake of your own integrity and the integrity of your ministry, you must abide by copyright laws.
So, how can you avoid being guilty of crossing the line?
- Let someone else do the work for you. If your church isn’t already working with a licensing company, such as CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International), you should be! These companies exist to assist churches in obtaining worship resources easily and, more importantly, legally.
- If you plan to use or reproduce print resources, songs, or videos, research the copyright information, contact the appropriate person and ask for permission—in writing—to use said resources. Simply giving credit to the holder of the copyright is not the same as having their permission to use their material!
- Buy before you even think about copying. If, for example, you plan to show the same video in six different rooms at the same time, buy six videos. Don’t purchase one and make 5 copies. This absolutely applies to printed curriculum as well. Don’t purchase one student book and then photocopy dozens more for your kids. Buy the number of books you need.
- There are clauses in the copyright laws that protect churches, but they are limited. For example, singing a copyrighted song for a worship service isn’t a violation. However, copying the lyrics or sheet music, or using that song as the backing track for a video on your website are violations.
- If creating your own songs and videos is an option for you, go for it! If it’s created by you, it belongs to you!
- Ask yourself, do I really need this resource? Are there alternatives? Will showing this video really bring hundreds of kids to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ?
- Finally, when in doubt, don’t. If you don’t have permission, don’t use the material.