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A woman sitting in a lecture with her hand on her chin. She's pondering the cost of copyright infringement.
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Copyright Infringement and Your Ministry: The Real Cost

Making extra copies of material you’ve purchased may save your ministry money. But the real cost of copyright infringement may shock you.

Copyrights matter. Here’s why.

Several years ago, a 32-year-old woman was found guilty of illegally downloading 24 songs. The federal jury that found her guilty of willful copyright infringement of the songs (originally priced at 99 cents each) fined her $80,000 per song for a grand total of $1.9 million. (The judgment was later reduced to $54,000.) This case is jarring for its implications. It also marks the first file-sharing copyright infringement case brought before the U.S. court

A man operated six websites where he posted scanned files of Marvel comic books and made them available for free. The sites boasted more than 100,000 issues available to the public and averaged 400,000 to 500,000 visits per day. Marvel’s site cost $10 per month to access online issues. But as a result of the free sites, Marvel lost untold amounts of revenue. The FBI intervened and took control of the sites, leaving the site owner to face federal charges of copyright infringement.

Just one more example: The Evangelical Christian Publisher Association (ECPA) in the UK legal action against Andrew (Amue) Ansell. He was copying hundreds of full texts of Christian books and posting them on his website. Amue Ansell charged a subscription fee for people to view the texts and ignored the ECPA’s cease-and-desist notices. In 2010, an arrest warrant was issued for Amue Ansell for copyright infringement. By the latter part of that year, Amue Ansell had admitted guilt for copyright infringement, ending a seven-year battle.

What is Copyright Infringement?

Copyright infringement is a term that up until about 15 years ago we didn’t hear much about. That’s largely because copyright infringement issues were left to mediation rooms and lawyers and corporations. Today, though, copyright infringement is a front-and-center issue because of the ready access of the Internet, technology that’s advancing at a mind-bending pace, and the allure of (and our resulting expectation for) material that’s easy, free, and instant. So an issue that was handled out of the public eye has become a startling new dilemma for people everywhere.

So, you ask, what do these cases have to do with your ministry? After all, it’s unlikely that you’re downloading songs and peer sharing them. And you’re probably not scanning books you didn’t write and posting them online for the world to see. But consider for a moment the common things your church may be doing or may consider doing in day-to-day work.

  • Making copies of books or articles to distribute among volunteers and parents in your ministry
  • Showing movies to groups
  • Burning CDs of popular worship or VBS music to give to kids
  • Copying and posting interesting articles from outside sources on websites
  • Using popular, mainstream characters, titles, and themes for ministry purposes without licensing purchase

Copyright Infringement and the Church

Historically, churches have been offenders when it comes to copyright infringement. This isn’t because they’re trying to make a profit or they have less-than-good intentions. Rather, the main reasons churches cross lines when it comes to copyright is because they want to share material they think is good, they’re strapped by budgets, or they simply don’t realize they’re infringing on copyrights and costing authors, creators, and publishing companies revenue.

Children’s Ministry Magazine conducted an exclusive survey of 260 children’s ministers. We asked churches across the U.S. what they know—and how they feel—about copyrights. What we found was surprising, encouraging, and alarming.

When it comes to a basic grasp of copyright compliance, the people we surveyed were split. They say they either understand and comply with copyright issues or they admit to feeling generally clueless about them. 54 percent of children’s ministers say they feel well-equipped regarding copyright rules for print products, movies, and music. That leaves 42 percent who say they don’t know what complying with copyrights means. Even worse, there’s 4 percent who admit they know they’re supposed to comply with copyrights—but they choose not to.

It’s important from a ministry perspective to get to the bottom of some common misconceptions.

What’s a Copyright, Anyway?

Perception: 94 percent say copyrights protect the original authors, creators, and publishers of a work and help provide fair compensation for that work. Six percent say copyrights exist as a way for corporations to make more money off consumers—even churches with copyrights who aren’t out to make a profit.

Reality: Most people understand what the purpose of copyrights are. Confusion sets in when it comes to how they apply to different media and in different situations. Essentially, copyright laws are exclusive rights granted to the author or creator of an original work. These include the rights to reproduce, sell or distribute, and change the work as the author—and only the author—chooses. Copyrights apply once an idea becomes a “fixed” form, such as in print, in an image or movie, or in song. Copyright automatically protects the fixed form once it’s created. All usages of copyrighted material beyond what’s considered “fair use” requires permission.

Who Pays the Price?

Perception: 57 percent believe that if a church violates a copyright, the ramifications fall on the entire church. Just 5 percent believe that it falls on the individual who actually violated the copyright.

Reality: Organizations or corporations as a whole can’t go to jail, according to Alan Phillips, an attorney for Lifeway Christian Resources. So, the penalty of copyright infringement will typically fall on the individual—not the ministry or church—who violated the copyright.

Is It Really My Problem?


64 percent say they stay informed about copyright issues that might impact ministry, while 36% say their role never involved knowledge on copyright or that it never occurred to them to worry about copyright issues. Eighty-two percent say that the impact of copyright infringement results in substantial impact for the businesses and individuals who lose income when others distribute their material without permission. Nine percent argue that copyright infringements most prevalent in churches don’t hurt or only indirectly impact the copyright owners. Another nine percent say it’s unrealistic for churches, who can’t afford multiple copies or licensing fees, to comply with copyrights.

Reality: While the majority of people have good intentions regarding copyrights, a whopping 77 percent of respondents admit that in the past year their church or ministry has overstepped a copyright boundary at least once and sometimes many more times. Sixty percent say that in the future, they’ll learn more about what constitutes a copyright violation. 28 percent plan to make policy and procedure changes to comply with copyrights. Eleven percent say they’ll worry about copyrights more but won’t change what they’re currently doing.

The bottom line? It’s up to you to take the high road. Ensure that you and your ministry have obtained the proper permission to reproduce or distribute copyrighted material. Why? The professional quality material used, enjoyed, valued, and shared in your ministry has creators who received compensation for these creations. Ignoring copyrights means creators and publishers aren’t compensated for their work. This risks their future ability to create material that serves and equips the church.

Why Not if We Bought the Book?

Perception: 22 percent say making enough copies to go around from a single purchased book is an acceptable practice. Twenty-seven percent say they simply make additional copies from a lesson book when they need extras, while just eight percent contact the publisher and obtain written permission to make extra copies.

Reality: 78 percent of people in our survey recognize that this practice violates the copyright unless granted express permission by the publisher to reprint the pages. If you want to make copies of a book and you don’t see express permission on the page you want to reproduce, contact the publisher’s permissions department to get the proper permission.

What’s Wrong With Movie Night?

Perception: Here’s one of the most common scenarios involving copyright infringement: First Church invites the community to a family movie night as an outreach. They rent the movie or borrow it from someone’s personal movie library, hang a sheet on the side of the church, pop gallons of popcorn, and project the movie to a crowd of 100 delighted guests. This is all perfectly acceptable—if First Church obtained the appropriate licensing to do it. But 44 percent of our participants say they didn’t know they needed licensing to show a movie to a group. Even more worrisome, three percent said they asked people who came to pay a fee or offer a donation to the ministry to attend. In these cases, the church makes a profit off someone else’s work.

Reality: Cheers to the 53 percent who say they had express permission to show the movie from a licensing organization. You must have a license to show a movie to a group—no matter the size—and in almost all situations, you can’t charge people to come. Don’t hesitate. Get the license. (And if you’re looking to do a fundraiser, sell concessions.)

Why Can’t We Just Share Good Stuff?

Perception: Many churches’ websites include relevant articles or streaming worship music to draw in people. But, thankfully, only a small minority (4 percent) of respondents reported copying and posting articles to their sites without permission or credit to the author. Sixty-seven percent say they’ve never posted something without permission.

Reality: The Internet has created big challenges for copyright protections. Today, if you like an article, image, song, or another tidbit you find online, often it’s as easy as hitting “share.” But it’s also tempting to copy and paste the item into newsletters, on websites, and through social media, with or without permission. This happens commonly as people perceive this as “borrowing” articles. And right behind the article grab is rampant music and image pilfering.

We Bought the CD—Why Can’t We Play It?

Perception: 60 percent of children’s ministers say they purchase great music and share it with families by playing it over the sound system. On a positive note, only seven percent admit to burning and distributing extra CDs whenever they like.

Reality: Sharing music over your sound system helps you infuse your ministry with joyful worship and praise—as long as you obtain the license to do so. As with movies, to play music for a group, you need permission. And burning CDs without paying for each download is illegal.

Kids Love the Characters—Why Can’t We Use Them?

Perception: One of the most eye-opening responses to our survey was this: 35 percent say their ministry has reproduced popular movie themes, cartoon characters, or music as part of their ministry theme without permission. Fifteen percent say they’ve created T-shirts, brochures, and logos that include popular commercial themes (think “Mickey’s Most Amazing Ministry” or “First Church Minions.”) And here’s another worrisome point: A quick Internet search reveals numerous ministries promoting programs, events, and even VBS themes based on commercial, mainstream characters, TV shows, and movies.

Reality: In each of these cases, it’s unlikely that the original authors and publishers such as Disney or Pixar have granted permission for their characters to be used or reproduced in such a way. So these ministries—despite wonderful intentions and great enthusiasm for ministry—may be infringing on copyright laws. This leaves ministries wide open to legal action, no matter how unlikely.

Ministries everywhere agree on this: We all want to provide families with the best resources and most engaging experiences each week. We can do this by abiding by copyright law and, in turn, ensure authors, creators, and publishers can keep doing their important work to develop amazing resources that support the ministries we love.

Learn more about copyright law and how it applies to your ministry here.

Want more articles for children’s ministry leaders? Check these out. And for even more ideas and daily posts of inspiration, follow us on Facebook!

11 thoughts on “Copyright Infringement and Your Ministry: The Real Cost

  1. Rev. Jay Gideon

    Are movies: titles of movies and particular content of movies copyrighted?

  2. May I copy your article to give to our workers?

    • Julia Johnson

      Hi Fred, Yes you may share this article with your workers! Thank you for asking.

  3. Janet Jones


    While we have CCLI streaming, CCLI song select, etc. Is our church allowed to have a science experiment from this site (David and Goliath), and have it presented in a Zoom meeting with youth and their parents? Thank you in advance.

    • Jennifer Hooks

      Hi Janet! Thanks for asking. Yes, it is fine to present an idea from this site on your Zoom meeting. 🙂 We hope you have great success!

  4. Bonnie Reed

    First of all thank you so much for being a servant of the the LORD! I would like to respectfully request your permission to:
    (1 ) copy the timely information above and distribute to our Christian Education teachers and parents?
    (2) Present it in a Microsoft Teams slide to further educate our congregation unable at this time to be reached any other way?
    (3) Make a nominal donation to further your work in the service of Our LORD?


      I forgot to ask if we could have permission to use some of the “Free” weekly content as teaching tools? We would be respectful and give this site the expected credit for usage of the information and only use a few ideas. We would need to present them in teams on screen. Thank you so much.

      • Jennifer Hooks

        Hi Bonnie, thank you for asking. Yes, with proper credit given, you may use the ideas. Thanks!

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