Church Super Bowl Parties and Other Copyright Infringements

The Guide One Insurance article titled “Touchdown! How to Enjoy the Super Bowl Without Copyright Infringement” contains valuable information for churches that invite people out to watch the big game through a live broadcast. Having a group of friends come over to your house to watch the Super Bowl on TV is different from inviting people out to the church to see it. The article explains the rules that were “clarified” in 2009. The commercial nature of having a Super Bowl party at church has specific rules that need to be followed to avoid copyright infringements. Surprisingly, they seem to be very easy to follow.

The serious nature of violating copyrights should be considered by churches on at least two fronts. Firstly, it would be a sin to knowingly and willingly violate the law. Secondly, churches that are prosecuted for copyright infringement issues may end up paying hefty fines or worse. Those FBI warnings on DVDs are not just there for show. Though the NFL now has some seemingly simple rules to follow for churches wanting to throw parties and have people watch the game live, those same churches should also consider other potential copyright violations.

Just because a person owns a DVD of a movie does not mean it comes with a right to show it to an audience at church. It also does not matter if it is an audience of two or 2000. The same goes for using any other creative work. Photocopies of pages from a book, using images downloaded from the Internet, or even playing music from CDs are all subject to licensing rules that can vary greatly from one thing to the next.

The creator of a video uploaded to YouTube may declare it free for all to use, but it is a violation of YouTube’s terms of service to download the content. I was given express permission from a popular ministry to download and use a video they had posted to YouTube. They were apparently unaware of the terms of service for the site. Still, it was my responsibility to find out. This is where things can get convoluted to the point of exasperation when a ministry wants to share content publicly. The only way the video could be legally and ethically used was to find another source for the actual video file that was going to be archived for later use in class.

Some productions and services allow videos to be streamed but not saved to a computer for later use. Some require not only a purchase of a public viewing license but also the purchase of a specific release of the video that will be shown. In other words, a special DVD or video file has to be purchased for the public viewing that makes the viewing license valid. Other licensing requirements are as simple as buying a copy of the official DVD at a store and paying for a license to show it online.

Licenses to show movies to audiences at churches are typically not prohibitively expensive. Also, it is not wise to rely on a blanket license to cover all potential copyright infringements. Again, each creative work has specific licensing requirements. So-called Christian movies are usually made affordable for all congregations sizes to show on a movie night. Some movies may have no public viewing license currently available.

I sought to obtain a license to show “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and was advised by the controlling company that no license was available for church viewing of the 1965 animated feature. On the other hand, a license to show “The Passion of the Christ,” that was thought to be unavailable at the time, was being offered by Swank Motion Pictures at their website.

This brings up another question.

If one does a search for licensing of movies to show at church, the results show several websites claiming to provide the licenses. The issue is that there is no real way to know if the company offering the license is 100 percent legitimate. It would not be hard for scam artists to set up a website claiming to sell online licenses to publicly show copyrighted material. Therefore, buyers should beware. It is important to ask questions and be as certain as possible that the license being purchased is legitimate. One way to be more certain is to contact the studio that produced the movie, asking where to obtain a license to show the movie to a church audience.

From what I have seen in some churches, it is very important for pastors and church boards to come up with written copyright infringement policies that should be rigorously enforced. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Fines of even a few thousand dollars could bankrupt small congregations and would be a waste of resources to larger ones.

This article is not legal advice, nor was it written by an attorney. It is just general information intended to get congregations to take copyright infringement issues more seriously. Every church should consult legal counsel for how copyright infringement could potentially affect them as well as for advice on implementing written policies to help prevent problems from occurring.