Copyright for Virtual Worship Services: What You Can and Cannot Do


J.W. Pepper recently conducted a webinar regarding copyright as it pertains to virtual worship services. Here’s a summary of the webinar along with a list of questions asked during the presentation and the answers from our panel. You can watch a recording of the webinar here.

None of the Pepper staff or panelists on this webinar are lawyers, and this advice should not be interpreted as legal advice. Contact publishers for their requirements or a copyright attorney for legal advice regarding copyrights.

How is copyright different for churches?
Copyright law is the same for churches – but churches do have an exemption that others don’t: the Religious Worship Service Exemption. This exemption “allows the public performance of a nondramatic literary or musical work or of a dramatico-musical work of a religious nature, or display of a work, in the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly” (17 U.S. Code § 110(3)).

In other words, any music you play during a worship service in your church is exempt from copyright liability. You do not need any specific licenses. However – once you step outside of your church (like streaming or outdoor services) or hold an event that is not a worship service, the exemption does not apply and you need to have the proper licenses in place.

Licenses often used by churches
We’ve listed and described some of the types of licenses below to give you a refresher on the ones that could be required, depending on how you plan to use the music:

  • Print/reprint: making copies of or displaying lyrics during a service – request permission from the copyright owner
  • Mechanical: making an audio recording – request permission from the copyright owner
  • Synchronization: making a video recording – request permission from the copyright owner
  • Performance: performing music in a public situation (e.g., live streaming, public performance) – available from the copyright owner or Performing Rights Organizations (PRO) – ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, etc.
  • Master Use: using a professional backing track in a performance or video – request permission from the creator of the actual recording (not always the copyright holder of the song)
  • Digital Audio Transmission: using music in a podcast or other streaming audio situation – available from the copyright owner

How to obtain licenses
There are several ways churches can obtain licenses – but they require some work! We encourage you to plan several months ahead if possible to allow the time needed.

  • Use a commercial licensing service such as CCLI, One License, and CCS. These organizations each license products from specific publishers’ catalogs, and they can be a one-stop way to acquire the licenses you need – if your songs are included in the catalogs they work with. They each offer annual licenses and require you to report your usage each week, so they make sure the composers get paid.

    CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International) – covers more contemporary sacred music publishers

    One License – covers more traditional sacred music publishers

    CCS (Christian Copyright Solutions) – covers performances of songs in PRO catalogs

    Music Services – licensing and publisher services for sacred music publishers
  • Contact the publisher directly. If you are looking to license a title that is not covered by your CCLI, One License, or CCS license, you should contact the publisher directly and request it. Publishers also directly license master use recordings (if they created the track), mechanical and video synchronization licenses, and performance licenses if they own the copyright to the song.

    NOTE: Look at the bottom of the music you want to license to see what company is listed next to the copyright symbol. That’s who you need to contact.

    Most publishers have a licensing section on their website or include information on licensing under their “contact us” sections.
  • Social media posting – both Facebook and YouTube have blanket performance licenses with publishers that do not require you to get additional performance licenses to stream on their platform. However, you do still need to get video synchronization licenses from the publishers to create the videos before you post them.


Licensing requirements – top scenarios
We’ve pulled together the most common virtual worship scenarios and made a chart indicating which licenses you would need from the major licensing companies (CCLI, One License, and CCS) as a place to start.

SituationCCLIOne LicenseCCS
Livestream service onlyStreaming licenseLimited podcast/ streaming license or podcast/streaming license bundleWORSHIPcast license
Livestream with lyricsStreaming licensePodcast/streaming license bundleWORSHIPcast license + lyrics through CCLI or One License
Livestream with lyrics and recorded content*Streaming licensePodcast/streaming license bundleWORSHIPcast license + lyrics through CCLI or One License

Situations that use recorded or streamed content that is not a part of your live worship service:

SituationLicense 1License 2License 3
Posting video of recorded content* (e.g., a concert)Synchronization license for each song recorded – get from copyright holdersPerformance license (unless posting to Facebook or YouTube only) – get from copyright holder or PRO 
Virtual choir recording posted online*Mechanical license for initial recording for participants – get from copyright holderSynchronization license to create the compilation videoPerformance license to post the video (unless posting to Facebook or YouTube only) – get from copyright holder or PRO

*if using a professional backing track in the recording, a Master Use license is required from the publisher directly.

Frequently Asked Questions

We’ve compiled a list of questions asked during the webinar and asked our experts and staff from CCLI and One License to help us answer them – an excellent reference!

Resources for additional information:

Still have questions?
Contact us at and we will do our best to get you the answers you need.

Andrea Pelloquin
Andrea Pelloquin
Andrea Pelloquin is Events Manager at J.W. Pepper, managing all virtual and live events for the company. Andrea is a former band director and private music teacher and has worked in the print music industry in both retail and publishing capacities for over 15 years.


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