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Copyright Best Practices for Parishes, Schools and Entities

Thou Shalt Not Steal (Exodus 20:15)

Copyright is the legal protection extended to the authors or owners of original published and unpublished artistic and intellectual works. In the U.S., a copyright grants the author exclusive rights to make copies of the original work, to make "derivative works" that vary from the original, and to publicly perform, display, or transmit the work.

This means that it's illegal for anyone else to use the work in these ways without the author's permission. If you carry out any of these activities without permission, you are violating copyright law and may be subject to legal sanctions, including fines

To err on the side of caution, you should assume that any images you come across online are copyrighted, even if they don't have a copyright symbol (©) or legal text  - a copyright violation could cost thousands of dollars in fines (plus lawyer fees for handling the dispute in court). 

Common Copyrighted materials used in churches



Music Copyright

Regarding Copyright permission for publishing music (reprint, podcast, recording hymns and songs) used in Catholic worship: is a license that assists a worshipping community in obtaining reprint permission for copyrighted music. There is a 3-step process that is easily accomplished: download, create (the worship aid or resource) and report. “Members” of can preview music files, listen to sample clips, and download high-res image files. 

Note: this reprint license is reasonably priced, and for Catholics, validates a justice issue regarding composers and their rights to sharing their music compositions, and compensation for their publications. represents the largest number of publishers “grouped together” in the U.S. and outside of the U.S. for English-speaking countries. Music in Spanish is abundantly well-represented also.

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Image Copyright

Before using a photo in your parish, school or entity communications, ask these questions:
  • Did you take the photo (or know the person who took the photo and obtained their permission)?

  • Did you download the image from a site with the images clearly designated as Creative Commons or Public Domain?

  • Did you download the image from a paid membership site with royalty free images, such as

  • Did you buy the image and are confident that the licenses cover your intended use?


Then you probably shouldn't use the photo on your website, social media posts, or in your bulletin. 


Additional Resources and Information on Image Copyright


Want to use an image but you don't know if it's okay to use? 

There are a couple of different sites that will help you find out more about an image. If you do a search and the image shows that it is a stock photo for sale at a site like Getty Images, Shutterstock, Adobe Stock, etc., DO NOT USE IT FOR YOUR PARISH COMMUNICATIONS unless you purchase the image with the appropriate licenses. 


Image sources with Public Domain and Creative Commons use images

Video: Finding Copyright-Free Images for Catechetical Use (

       Pope Francis pics

       General Stock Photos

  • - Good selection of Catholic images
  • - Great textures and background images for quotes, Also has stock photos - use Search function to find Pro Titles, Pro Layers, images by color, and other ways to navigate images in site.
  • Flat icon - The largest database of free icons available in PNG, SVG, EPS, PSD and BASE 64 format, great for simple clip art and other small graphics
  • Pikwizard - A collection of royalty-free stock images, including both free and "Premium" images. Features lots of categories which make searching easier.


Tools to create and edit graphics and images

  • Pixlr Editor - Online Photo Editor / Photoshop alternative
  • Canva - Free Work accounts for non-profits, also includes templates with affordable cost images to purchase
  • Adobe Spark - Turn your ideas into impactful social graphics, web stories and animated videos


Video Copyright

You Tube, Vimeo, Facebook Videos, and Videos on Other Online Video Sites

Embedding videos

If a video has an "Embed This" option, it should be safe to add to a website. However, be aware that some videos autoplay ads, even embedded videos. 

Playing in parish classes or other events

Playing any video from these websites publicly is a violation of copyright laws.  In fact, if you read each of their fine print, you will find that they specifically talk about private viewing only.  Ripping (downloading) videos from these sites is also a violation of their usage terms and can get your account suspended from them. 

Technically, many of the videos on YouTube themselves are in violation of copyright.  Users are posting audio and video on YouTube when they aren’t the copyright holder, which is a copyright infringement.  YouTube is working hard to bring violators down as quickly as they can, but it’s hard when there are 24 hours of video uploaded every second to YouTube.  These users can be fined.  And if you rip one of these videos and show it publicly, you can be fined as well. 

Some online videos are marked by the originator as available for Public / Commercial use under the Creative Commons license.  Other videos can be used if permission is obtained by the content originator. For example, if you would like to use Bishop Robert Barron's YouTube videos as part of a class presentation, you can see the usage guidelines at and contact them if you need to obtain permission before sharing. 

There is a usage allotment of copyrighted material which allows for “fair use” without worry of copyright infringement.  You can see the legal description of “fair use” on YouTube’s site here:

The bottom line is that you should assume that a video you find at an online source is copyrighted and permission should be obtained before playing the video in your church.  

More info: YouTube Copyright Resources - Learn About Copyright

Includes excerpts from Stop Playing Those Video Clips -



Showing Movies at Church

There are wonderful reasons for showing movies at church: education, fellowship, youth group, community events, etc. But what are the copyright implications? Many church leaders assume that churches are somehow exempt from copyright issues when it comes to showing movies at church. Unfortunately this is not true. The rules are clear: when you buy or rent a movie, it is for personal use – meaning you can show it at home with family and friends. When you show a movie outside of your home, it constitutes a public performance. And for a public performance, you need to obtain a license.

As Christian educator Lisa Brown explains, “You cannot show a movie at church without a site license. Even though you are a non-profit, even though you are not charging, even though the movie is being used for instructional purposes, you are not legally permitted to do so without a site license. That FBI warning at the start of every movie expresses that movies are for personal viewing.” (The Best VBS Workbook Ever! New York: Church Publishing, 2017)

What About Fair Use and Educational Use?

US Copyright Law includes a section (107) on “fair use,” which allows the use of copyrighted material without permission or license, in certain circumstances. There is a terrific website on fair use, hosted by the University of Minnesota. As the site explains, “Purposes that favor fair use include education, scholarship, research, and news reporting, as well as criticism and commentary more generally.”  However, churches do not usually fall into these categories. Yes I know that our churches are educational, but our reasons for showing movies at church often do not fit the fair use parameters.

What about showing movies in a classroom? US Copyright Law (section 110) has another provision for the use of copyrighted materials in an educational classroom setting. Check out the article on classroom use from the University of Minnesota. The article explains, “To qualify for this exemption, you must: be in a classroom (‘or similar place devoted to instruction’). Be there in person, engaged in face-to-face teaching activities. Be at a nonprofit educational institution.” Section 110 additionally states the display of the copyrighted materials – i.e showing a movie – must be “directly related and of material assistance to the teaching content of the transmission.”

So what does this mean for showing movies at church? It may mean that if your church offered a course on the Old Testament, you could show a documentary about ancient Israel in the classroom as part the lesson. (Of course this assumes that the church is being considered a nonprofit educational institution.) But showing Evan Almighty at youth group? Not fair use. Or showing Amistad to your adult group? Not really classroom use. And hosting a family movie night? Definitely not fair use. Most of the times that we show movies in church, we are conducting public performances. And for a public performance, one needs a license.

Getting a License to Show Movies at Church

The good news is that you CAN show movies at church – you just need a license! Getting a license to show movies in church is easy, and the price may be lower than you think. The first step is determining what movie you want to show, and where you want to show it. Then check out the licensing options below. You can opt for an annual license, allowing you to show many movies over the course of a year. Or for a larger movie event, you can opt for a one-time license.

The companies below may seem intimidating, but they are actually easy to contact and pleasant to work with. The websites are helpful for searching for movies and answering questions. When you call on the phone, a representative will discuss your needs and work with you to get the license you need. By getting a license, you can feel good knowing that you are doing the right thing, as well as setting a strong example for your congregation.

Swank Motion Pictures
This is your best bet for a planned and scheduled single movie event. The advantage of a license like this is that you have flexibility for showing and promoting your event. For example: indoor, outdoor, inviting the public, and even charging admission. Swank also has ready-made promotional templates such as posters. You can add your church name and event info to promote the movie showing.

Criterion Pictures
This licensing company is your go-to for showing films produced by 20th Century Fox. They have other producers as well, and the website will walk you through the options. Similar to Swank, Criterion offers one-time licenses per movie, per showing. Custom promotional materials are also available.

Church Video Licensing
This licensing option has been specifically designed for churches. They offer an annual ‘umbrella’ license that allows you to show movies at church throughout the year. They also have a one week option. You do need to make sure that your desired movie is covered by CVL, and there are restrictions about promotion and viewing location. Overall, this license is intended for showing movies on church property to members of the congregation and their guests. As a bonus, CVL offer ScreenVue which has movie clips to use as teasers, or in sermons. CVL is a division of MPLC, Motion Picture Licensing Corporation.

Movie Licensing USA
This licensing group is specifically tailored and priced for public libraries, as well as K-12 schools. Movie Licensing USA is a division of Swank Motion Pictures.

How Much Does a License Cost?

The price of a license depends on the size of the intended audience, the movie to be shown, and the location in which it will be shown. For a one-time license, the price is determined on a case-by-case basis, based on the factors above. For annual licenses from CVL, your flat rate simply depends on the size of your congregation (average combined worship attendance).

Planning a Large Church Movie Event

Thinking of going big? An open movie night at church can be an exciting community event. Check out this How to Guide for hosting a movie night at your church. The guide was put together and made available by the pastor of "The Church at Cane Bay" Christian Church in South Carolina in conjunction with Swank Motion Pictures. You’ll find tips for planning events, promoting movie nights, and obtaining the correct license.

Source: "Showing Movies At Church: Do I Need A License?",

Note:  The above information is not intended to provide legal advice.  If you have questions about copyright law, please consult a lawyer for legal advice.