Music, Media, and Unitarian Universalism

Copyright in the Context of Worship

Music has always played an important role in the activities of all major religions.  It is no less important in Unitarian Universalism.  Listening to inspirational music allows us to feel connected to what is transcendent in our lives.  Performing it together allows us to connect to each other on a deeper level.   

Here are some FAQs regarding copyright and Unitarian Universalism.  You may not like the answers.  That is your prerogative.  But out of respect for the law and the risk to our church of being implicated in a copyright infringement lawsuit, you are asked to comply with the UU Copyright Policy and additional qualified legal advice.  It’s a matter of responsible membership, not personal aesthetics.   The Further Exploration Section below provides more resources for copyright history and UU guidance.

Remember, that the guidance provided here is only a summary, not a substitute for competent legal opinion.  Our church and UUA leadership should be consulted regarding specific instances.

Q:  Do you have a favorite song, video, or other creative work that you’d like to share with the congregation during services?  Is this OK?

A:  No, if the song is commercially copyrighted.  Living as we are, in a media-rich age, each of us probably has at least one song, for instance. You may have heard the song on the radio, or from commercial Internet providers of media, such as Amazon or Hulu, or you may have purchased the CD or sheet music from a commercial source.  These are examples of commercial media that are “owned” (or copyrighted) by a publisher; you, or the radio/Internet, music store provider, are allowed to use that music, but only in compliance with the legal licensing agreement (terms of use) that authorized its use.    Living as we do, in a litigious society that guards its legal prerogatives as to the conditions under which we can enjoy those songs, videos, and other mass media, organizations and individuals that disregard publishers’ terms of use, do so at their peril.  

Q:  This is a church setting.  Can I claim “fair use” to justify including a copyrighted song in a service?

A:  No.  Our church live streams our services for the public, for off-site members, and members of the Fernandina Beach congregation.  We also record services and post them at our website so others may view them at a later time.  The fact that we record and/or broadcast services means that our use of commercial music is not “fair use.”  Unauthorized use of copyrighted media in this context constitutes copyright infringement, and the penalties for it can be stiff.

Q:  Can’t the church just get permission from the copyright holder for use of the media.

A:  Very unlikely.  It’s partly just a practical matter.  Commercial copyright holders are interested in big profits.  They are probably going to ignore your request or charge an outrageous sum.

Q:  Can’t I just ask the composer or artist?

A:  If the composer or artist’s work is published commercially, they no longer own the copyright to the material – even if they created it.  They receive royalties as compensation for surrendering their copyright ownership and for having their works published and distributed widely.

Q:  So where does the music for our services come from?

A:  Unitarian Universalists have a large collection of music and text that was created for the purposes of enlivening our worship services.  The big plus in these resources is that each piece provides an expression of one or more values incorporated in our Seven Principles and Six Sources.

Q:  Where can I find this music?

A: Our congregation owns copies of two important hymnals, “Singing the Living Tradition,” which organizes music thematically and provides context for the hymns and readings, and the supplemental hymnal, “Singing the Journey.”  Music resources are also online at Worship Web Library, a compilation of music created by generous composers, not for profit, but for Unitarian Universalist services.  Note that Worship Web and our hymnals have their own set of copyright guidelines.

For instance, hymn 184 from “Singing the Living Tradition,” is titled, “Be Ye Lamps Unto Yourselves.”  The words are from the Buddha, “Be ye lamps unto yourselves; be your own confidence.  Hold to the truth within yourselves as to the only lamp.”    The melody is from an ancient Latin hymn.  Hymn 184 demonstrates wisdom from the world’s religions.  (For more examples of how our hymns celebrate UU beliefs, see the Further Exploration Section below.)

Music and other media that are in the public domain may be used in our services legally, without fear of copyright infringement.  Media licensed under various Creative Commons options may also provide sources for service use; but it’s very important to understand the terms of use for such works.  They may not require monetary contributions, but they do define where and how the work can be used.  Last, but not least, these media should reflect our UU principles and sources, and that determination is be left to leaders who are authorities in those areas.

Q:  So how does our UU Copyright Policy relate to movies and videos?

 The same general principles apply when the movie is copyrighted.  Some churches have purchased licenses that allow them to play a defined collection of movies, but the licenses restrict the circumstances under which the movies may be shown, and in no case is recording or livestreaming of the movie acceptable.

We have such easy access to video clips over the Internet that you may be tempted to think that just because they might be available for free from sources like YouTube, they are fair use; don’t make the mistake of thinking all such videos are legal.  Copyright holders can and do ask YouTube to remove some of the more egregious infringing materials, but may not bother complaining about all the violations.  The fact that it’s “up there” does not entitle you compound a violation by showing it at services.

History shows that even non-profits can suffer devastating consequences by ignoring copyright.  We do not have to like copyright law, but in this case, there are compelling reasons to observe it.

In conclusion, the mission of the church in this area is to create a real “our music,” separate from commercial interests, with hymns that express our common tradition and history.  That’s its purpose, and where its value is to be found.   As the Rev. Natalie Fenimore explains, “Our communities of faith are trying to work counter to what is happening in the rest of the world.  The learning we get (there) is not the learning we want to have in UU communities.”

Further Exploration:  

Using Copyrighted Material in Worship Services – from UUA website

Researching Copyright for Live Streaming– from UUA website

A&M Records, Inc. vs Napster Inc. – This case persuaded organizations to develop and enforce copyright policies in order to help defend themselves against infringement lawsuits; losing such a suit can subject the defendant to onerous civil or criminal penalties. 

More examples from the “Singing the Living Tradition” hymnal that celebrate our shared Unitarian Universalism principles and sources:

  • Hymn #157 with an excerpt from the Constitution of the United Mine Workers of America, “step by step the longest march can be won. many stones can form an arch –singly none.”  Voices raised against economic oppression.
  • Hymn#179 from the worship traditions of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, one of many hymns from across the world.  ”Teach us forgiveness. Make love our end. Show us, O Spirit, how to befriend.”
  • Hymn #93 with a text by the famous English mystic, William Blake, extolling mercy, pity, peace, and love as primary human values. “For mercy has a human heart and pity a human face.”
  • Hymn#345 with text by Samuel Longfellow that extols scientific enlightenment which brings, “advancing thought and widening view.”
  • Hymn#366 expressing joy with the one word, “Heleluyan,” from the Muskogee (Creek) people, both words and tune are part of the culture of Native Americans.