Copyright Law

Copyright law poses a potential financial risk for parishes, schools and institutions when images, music and scripts are illegally published or performed. In order to avoid penalties, and to assure the appropriate degree of respect for the work of others, it is critical to be aware of how to avoid infringement and legally use copyrighted works.

What is Copyright?

Copyright refers to the legal ownership an artist or author has over any original work that he or she produces. It automatically goes into effect the moment an image or piece of music is created in fixed form. Only the copyright owner may give permission for the work to be copied, displayed or performed publicly. Typically, a copyright owner will request attribution and a small fee.

Copyrighted Images

The term “images” applies to clipart, photographs, graphic art, maps, posters, cartoons, architectural drawings, fine art and other graphical works. All are protected by copyright law. Sometimes images are made available for “royalty-free” use. As such, these images may be used without the need to pay royalties for each use, or the images may be used for a defined time period but still require a use or license fee initially for permitted use. A common example is the Microsoft Clipart collection, for which the End-User License Agreement allows royalty-free use of the collection for non-commercial purposes. There are also many reputable websites offering royalty-free “stock” images for a nominal fee of $10 -$15 per image.

Copyrighted Music

Under copyright law, “music” is a work that contains a fixed series of musical or spoken sounds. Before using a piece of liturgical music or printing the words contained therein, you must obtain permission from the creator or publisher of the piece. Sometimes a single musical composition is the collaborative effort of several authors, such as a composer, lyricist and instrumentalist, in which case each may hold a copyright. If this is the case, permission is required from each copyright holder. Publishers such as OCP, GIA and J.S. Paluch have obtained the individual copyright holders’ permission for their collections of musical works and can provide parishes with a single license to use these collections. Parishes generally pay a one-time or annual fee for these licenses.


Performances of plays and scripts are also protected by copyright law. If your parish or school intends to publicly perform a play or other copyrighted work, please confirm that your organization is authorized to do so by the publisher or copyright holder.

Fair Use

Fair Use, or the use of a portion of a copyrighted work without the copyright holder’s consent, involves a difficult distinction that is not easily defined and is therefore best avoided. To learn more about Fair Use, consult the U.S. Copyright Office’s website at:

When Does a Copyright Expire?

For works created after January 1, 1978, the copyright lasts until the death of the artist plus another 70 years. Anonymous works have a 95-year lifespan from the date of publication or a 120-year lifespan from the moment of creation. For works published before 1978, consult the publisher for details. Once the copyright expires, the work enters the public domain and may be used without permission (most works published before 1923 are now available).

How Do I Obtain Permission?

Assuming the work is not in the public domain, you should contact the copyright owner or publisher and request permission to reproduce the work. If you do not know who holds the copyright, you can search the records of the Copyright Office on their website at

When requesting permission or a license, be as specific as possible about your intended use. You will want to confirm whether the license is a one-time deal or perpetual; if it is not perpetual, you will have to ask again if you want to make additional copies once the licensed quantity or time period has been exceeded.

Potential Penalties

Illegally copied work, also known as copyright infringement, exposes parishes to lawsuits. The copyright holder may claim actual or statutory damages of up to $100,000, plus any attorney fees.

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