Rehearsal Tracks and Copyright

Posted on June 12, 2009

In my travels visiting churches and speaking at conferences about copyright issues, one of the most common and confusing questions I encounter is, “Can we post files on our website and allow downloads?” Often the question is really more of a hope for affirmation that it’s OK to do what they’re already doing.
Many churches want to harness their websites for convenience and cost savings to allow worship team members to download song sheets, charts, orchestrations and digital audio files for rehearsal purposes. It makes perfect sense, but is it legal? Short answer—not without prior permission.

Just a few years ago, worship leaders and ministers of music burned CD copies of songs they wanted their musicians and singers to learn, and although the means and technology have changed, it’s still the same issue. In almost all situations (there are a few exemptions), when you copy or reproduce a copyrighted work—in this case song(s) and sound recording(s)—you must first obtain permission from the copyright owners.

Whether you make a copy or reproduce a song by burning a CD from the original CD recording (which may be legally purchased) or post an audio digital file on your website and allow others to download the file—you are making copies or reproducing the original, and you must first get permission from the owner.

I’ll break it down in a little more detail. Let’s say you legally purchase or download a song from iTunes or another digital distributor (in digital audio format), you must abide by the Terms & Conditions of the distributor. You may be allowed to do certain things with that copy, such as “burning a song playlist on up to seven CDs,” or storing the song on up to “five Apple-authorized devices at any time.” The T&C only provides for personal, non-commercial use, and does not include sharing the files with others or posting them on a website where they can be downloaded.

There are two copyrights resident within the digital audio file: 1) the song, and 2) the sound recording of the song. There may be one, two, three or several owners of the song, depending on how many writers and/or co-publishers there are. The sound recording by the artist of the song is owned by the record label.

In order to legally make copies of the digital audio file (whether you burn them or post them online and allow downloads), you must obtain permission from the owners of the song(s) and sound recording. The license from the song copyright owner is called a mechanical license for CD recordings or DPD (digital phonorecord delivery) for downloads, and the license for the sound recording owner is called a master mechanical or master DPD. The mechanical song license can be obtained from the song publisher and currently costs $.091 per song per unit (5:00 minutes or under), although many companies charge a minimum fee of $15.00-91.00 for downloads. Master mechanicals for downloading sound recordings are more difficult to obtain and typically cost $.25 per song per unit with high minimums. (www.copyrightsolver.com/services.htm for help obtaining licenses.)

If you subscribe to or use an online application that allows you to organize and store files online (PDF or digital audio), the subscription does not usually include the permission or license allowing you to make download copies. There are some exceptions, like www.worshipteam.com, which has obtained audio and print licenses from publishers to allow making copies for your teams.

As an alternative, you may want to post your performances of songs for listening only (non-downloadable) on your site and obtain internet licenses from ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, or the one-stop WorshipCast License—internet performance blanket with 16 million songs from the U.S. performance rights organizations (http://copyrightsolver.com/WorshipCastLicense.aspx). NOTE: This only covers performance of songs, not sound recordings, so you would not be able to post third party recordings of the songs. Some churches actually post the live recording of songs from their worship services for future rehearsal purposes.

Another solution is to purchase iTunes (or other audio digital downloads) subscription for your worship team members to download individual song files for practice purposes. In many cases, this is more cost effective than obtaining licensing.

The same principle applies to print or sheet music. It is not legal to purchase one copy and store it electronically on your church server or in an online worship planning application file for the purpose of allowing your musicians to download multiple copies. There are also numerous and diverse worship print products available as online digital downloads—one for each musician or singer. Visit www.praisecharts.com, www.lifewayworship.com, www.worshipkitchen.com, www.greatwoshipsongs.com, www.ccli.com/songselect.aspx, www.worshiptogether.com. Some download print product provides for making multiple copies. Be sure to review the terms and conditions for each product.

I know that many worship leaders are frustrated by the Copyright Laws that restrict them from the most convenient and affordable method of posting songs for downloads on their websites. But, remember, that it’s really no different than when Xerox® introduced the first photocopier in the 1960’s, which made it extremely fast, easy and accessible to make copies. Sound familiar? For those who wanted to honor copyrights and abide by the law, they still had to get permission before making photocopies of copyrighted material.

Hopefully, Christian song publishers and record labels will be able to work together to create a simple blanket license that simplifies the process for legally downloading song files. I’ve had some encouraging discussions with various copyright owners lately about the need for this solution. In the mean time, however, you will need to get permission from the copyright owners or simply legally purchase download copies for each member of your worship team. I encourage you to pray about new solutions and ways copyright owners can collaborate to create accessible licensing rather than road blocks for churches that truly desire to honor songwriters and artists.