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How churches can avoid breaking copyright law


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Start scouring through church websites or worship bulletins and it won’t take long to find stolen images.

According to a survey from Pixsy — an image detection and legal resolution organization — 64 percent of photographers had their images used illegally on the Internet in 2016.

The Rev. David Lewicki , co-pastor of North Decatur Presbyterian Church in Georgia, and an avid blogger, said he understands how it happens, but urges church leaders to think twice.

“Your own images are never as good. I have this amazing camera in my pocket, but I don’t know how to use it. I can’t get the lighting right and the perspective right. It’s a matter of time,” he said. “Man, it’s quicker and better to just borrow someone else’s.”

But his grandfather was a painter, so he understands the blood, sweat and tears that go into creating something. That’s why, he said, it’s important for clergy and church staff to remember that artists deserve respect and should be paid appropriately for their work.

Simply put, copyright infringement is using copyrighted works without permission.

It’s misunderstood by many, though.

“I think people assume that everything on the internet is public and free,” Lewicki said. “Nowhere in (seminary) training does anyone sit you down and say ‘here’s what you can and can’t do and here’s where you go to find that information.’”

Though many artists don’t pursue charges when their work is stolen because of high legal fees, it can be quite costly if a lawsuit is filed. According to Purdue University, the infringer could pay anywhere from $200 – $150,000 for each work infringed.

Lewicki said church leaders can find copyright free images through the Creative Commons, or pay for photo services.

A commonly used website to find copyright free images is Creative Commons which instructs its users to attribute the creator of the material, provide a link to the image and its license, and indicate if the image has been modified.

Other sites to find copyright free images include Pixabay and Unsplash. Google also offers an advanced image search, allowing users to search by usage rights. Numerous sites offer commercial photos and graphics for a monthly fee as well.

Lewicki said the question of fair use also applies to showing video clips in church. The majority of YouTube’s content is free to view, though there are exceptions, including content on YouTube’s premium channels (subscription) and film rentals. Online video platform Vimeo offers a Creative Commons page where users browse fair use videos to show or edit.

Lewicki notes that the issue of plagiarism isn’t new to clergy, it’s just changing.

“It’s an old, old issuing going back to plagiarizing sermons,” he said, adding that it’s always difficult and painful when a pastor discovers they’re a victim of this.

It’s a matter of ethics, he said, that apply to the digital realm, “This is about respecting people’s creative integrity and the work and energy and love that goes into creating something original.”

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Diane Kipp
Diane Kipp
6 years ago

Good article; important and needed information. Copyright also applies to a lot of religious music that gets copied and shared.

Pastor Deb Conklin
Pastor Deb Conklin
5 years ago

This article was not all that helpful. Most clergy actually know all of this. What is less understood is that when you buy a group license like CCLI or LicenSing there are still steps that have to be followed. It’s not enough to pay the annual fee. You also have to attribute the original artist/author and you have to cite your license by number in any and all uses – particularly when you display a song on screen in worship. You also do not have permission to broadcast the songs. So if you broadcast your service in any way, you need to cut out any music that is still under copyright. (Which pretty much includes anything that is not a 100 yr old traditional hymn.)

5 years ago

Actually it is helpful. As this pastor interviewed pointed out, a ton of clergy DON’T know this. But I’m glad you do.

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