Religious organizations around the world are searching for ways to continue offering religious services in light of the COVID-19 prohibitions against physically gathering in places of worship. This is particularly true right now as people seek to worship during Easter, Passover, and Ramadan, all of which occur in April. Not being able to gather and worship in person for the foreseeable future has forced religious organizations to quickly adapt to other ways of worshipping, including livestreaming or rebroadcasting their services.
The U.S. Copyright Act exempts musical works that are performed in the course of religious services from the prohibition against performing copyrighted works without the author’s permission. That exemption, however, is limited to performance during a religious service. The exemption does not cover livestreaming, rebroadcasting or recording copyrighted works. The movement by many religious organizations to livestream or rebroadcast their services and including in those services musical recordings may be unlawful in the absence of obtaining the proper music licenses.
The penalties for copyright infringement can be harsh. Copyright owners who timely register their works are entitled to recover statutory damages ranging from $750 to $30,000 per work, or up to $150,000 per work for instances of willful infringement. Copyright owners who have not registered their works are still entitled to recover monetary damages upon proof of the same. The fact that the use of the copyrighted work was done without intent to infringe on the author’s rights is not a defense.
Therefore, in order to avoid a cease and desist notice, a temporary takedown notice, or legal action for copyright infringement, a religious organization should ensure that it has the proper music licenses for all the different forms of religious services being offered during the COVID-19 crisis, as well as in the post-COVID-19 world.