What is Copyright?

Defining Copyright

Much of a church’s property can be seen and touched, or moved. Property like land and buildings is legally referred to as “real property,” while property like furnishings and equipment is often called “personal property.” But there is another very important variety of church property referred to as “intellectual property.” Intellectual property is a kind of “intangible property.” When it is created, it cannot be seen, touched, or moved.

The intellectual property of a church includes the sermons preached at its services, the curriculum and written materials it generates, the original music it creates, and the audio and video recordings of its services.

The ownership of this kind of intellectual property is referred to as a copyright. While ownership of real property is shown by a deed, or ownership of personal property may be evidenced by a bill or sale or a receipt, ownership of intellectual property is embodied in a copyright.

A “copyright” is the ownership of an “original work” by its author or originator. Copyright ownership is a foundational concept in American law. In fact, Congress was granted the power to protect copyright ownership under Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, which reads in part, “The Congress shall have power to . . . to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors . . . the exclusive right to their respective writings . . .” The United States Copyright Act, found in title 17 of the United States Code, addresses the rights of copyright owners at length. These “exclusive rights” of a copyright holder include the right to: make copies of the intellectual property, prepare other works (called “derivative works”) based upon the intellectual property, distribute or sell it, display it, perform it, or broadcast it.[1]

Many different kinds of intellectual property can be covered by copyright. The Copyright Act refers to various kinds of intellectual property, called “works,” including literary works, musical works, dramatic works, choreographic works, pictorial and graphic works, sculptures, motion pictures, audiovisual works, sound recordings, and architectural works. The ownership of each of these and other kinds of works not listed here is governed by copyright law.


But you may be asking, what about trademarks? Don’t trademarks show ownership of intellectual property? Yes they do, but trademarks apply to a different category of intellectual property. Trademark law applies to ownership of names, logos, and phrases, not works of authorship. So, a church’s name or logo or slogan may be protected by trademark, whereas the sermons preached at the church, the written materials distributed there, and the music sung there are protected by copyright.


Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart,
as working for the Lord, not for human masters,
since you know that you will receive an inheritance
from the Lord as a reward.
It is the Lord Jesus you are serving.
Colossians 3:23-24 (NIV)


To learn more, download the new ECFA eBook 6 Essentials of Church Copyright.

[1] Copyright Act, Section 106.