TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

14 November 2015

How CCLI shakes down your church.

Thanks to CCLI, copyright-exempt churches across the United States are paying a lot of unnecessary royalties.

One of my responsibilities at my church is multimedia. Yep, I’m the guy who makes sure the words to the worship songs are on the screen, so you can sing along to them.

When I was a kid we still had hymnals. Then we upgraded to overhead projectors; then PowerPoint; then specialized multimedia presentation software which was pretty much PowerPoint with a huge database of songs. Currently I’m using this app called ProPresenter. It’s not bad.

Whether you’re using one app or another, it pretty much works the same way: Our worship leader tells me which songs she intends to inflict on us Sunday morning. If I don’t already have slides for that song, I hop onto the CCLI database and get the lyrics. Then make slides for the verses, the chorus, the bridge, the “extemporaneous riffs” which are really just imitations of what the original musicians did on their YouTube video, and there y’go. Ready for Sunday.

What’s CCLI? It’s Christian Copyright Licensing International, a royalty collection agency. They charge each church an annual fee (anywhere from $49 to $4,260, depending on size), which grants permission to collect sheet music from their site. Chord, lead, or vocal sheets, and their site can transpose it into other keys for you. (That feature’s actually quite handy.) Once you inform them which songs you’ve used, they’ll send royalties to the artists.

And, they claim, you need them. If you do all sorts of things in your church—display or photocopy lyrics, distribute chord sheets, sing popular songs—you need CCLI. What’s implied is you need them lest you violate copyright laws. Point of fact, what you only get from them are sheet music and lyrics.

That’s not nothing. Other lyric websites might misspell words, mix up lyrics, forget to capitalize God’s pronouns, and get the chords wrong. Although years ago I heard Phil Keaggy complain CCLI didn’t get his chords right either, which is why his fans were having such trouble duplicating one of his songs. (To be fair, CCLI probably got the bad info from Keaggy’s publisher, who transcribed the song without any input from Keaggy.)

But copyright protection? Actually, CCLI doesn’t give you that. ’Cause your church doesn’t need it.

You read me right. Your church doesn’t need copyright protection. American copyright laws specifically exempt churches. I’ll quote you the law ’n everything.

Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106 [the copyright holder’s rights], the following are not infringements of copyright: […]

(3) performance of a nondramatic literary or musical work or of a dramatico-musical work of a religious nature, or display of a work, in the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly[.] 17 USC §110

Meaning, in other words, singing a song in church, whether as worship, or as “special music.” Meaning when you play a song over the loudspeakers.

If you do this in church, you’re fine. You’re legal. The music publishing companies won’t send a jackbooted tach team to interrupt your services and haul the pastors off to music jail. No matter how much the more paranoid folks in your church would love to see that scenario, as proof the world is out to get ’em.

Now here’s the gray area which CCLI claims music publishers can tag churches for: When you make copies of written materials. Say you make a bunch of songbooks for the kids in children’s church, including lyrics for all the songs the kids usually sing. Then, goes the story, then they gotcha. That’s a copyrighted work. You just broke the law.

Or say the choir wants to sing a song, and the choir director only has one book of all the vocal parts, and on every single page of that book it says, “No reproduction without permission.” Well, phooey; now you gotta buy a copy of that book for everybody. ’Cause copyright infringement. Can’t make photocopies. It says so right on the page. Do it and they’ll sue.

Say you project the words of your worship songs on a screen, and you forget to include the copyright info of the song. Heaven forfend! They’re coming for us!

CCLI, and many similar Christian royalty companies, make it sound like we can’t do anything without the risk of lawsuit. Which plays right into many a fearful Christian’s siege mentality. Note the scary wording on their website. Here, I swiped this bit.

There have been a number of copyright disputes regarding church music over the years, although most have been settled privately. You can imagine how uncomfortable it is for a Christian songwriter to address legal entanglements with a church.

Some church music leaders have made efforts to honor the law and have tried to obtain permission directly from copyright owners before making copies. This is often a time-consuming challenge and, in many cases, an administrative nightmare.

Many have agreed—the copyright law is fair but not practical. That’s why churches across North America have looked to CCLI for licenses and resources that solve the numerous copyright issues associated with common church music ministry activities.

CCLI, “Copyright Law”

Yep, those music publishers might come a-knocking. ’Cause you know how they’re cracking down on everybody else. They’re in a shrinking industry, and are kinda desperate, so who knows?—maybe they’re coming after churches next. Best to preemptively pay them off. And CCLI is so much easier to use than copyright lawyers.

Okeydokey. Let me introduce you to a really important bit of the copyright law called “Fair use.” This is the bit which permits us to do all those things I mentioned above. I learned about it in journalism school; it really comes in handy. For you too.

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include—

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors. 17 USC §107

Y’know what a church is? If it’s run properly, it disciples Christians. In other words teaches them. No, that’s not a stretch of the definition; that’s precisely what discipleship is. We’re students of Christ Jesus. We’re learning to follow God better. Worship contributes to that. Sucky worship doesn’t, but good worship instructs us how to praise God and grow closer to him. And in this instructional, non-profit setting—again, assuming we’re running our churches properly—fair use totally applies. We’re not trying to make money off worship music. We’re trying to praise God, and train up others to do likewise.

What about all those notations on the sheet music, insisting copies not be made? Well, they can print that all they like, if they can spare the ink. But it’s kinda like those keys which have “Do not duplicate” stamped on them: Lots of us ignore it, and there’s no real consequence when we do. So long that we don’t violate fair use (i.e. publish the sheet music in our very own hymnal, then sell it), we’re good.

Those songbooks which read “No duplication without permission”? If your church calls up the publisher and asks permission, they can’t really tell you no, and can’t really enforce their no either. CCLI describes it as a time-consuming challenge and administrative nightmare. True, the person you reach on the phone may not know the copyright laws, and forcefully try to discourage you. After all, they’d really like to sell more books. But you don’t have to buy a single extra thing. In fact you don’t even need to ask permission. ’Cause fair use.

Solving an already-solved problem.

Worried Christians will claim fair use is a gray area, and our churches totally could be sued. Y’know, like the Archdiocese of Chicago was sued in 1976 for copyright infringement. This particular lawsuit is the case a lot of Christians point to as an example of what could happen if we don’t pay for royalties.

Why this particular case, and not something more recent? Um… because there is nothing more recent. And won’t be. In 1982, Title 17 of the United States Code, a.k.a. the copyright law, was amended to exempt churches. But the Archdiocese violated the old copyright law, the Copyright Act of 1909. According to Public Law 94-553 §112, if your copyright violation took place before 1978, you gotta answer to the old rules. Since the three-year statute of limitations for all those cases ran out by 1981, the Archdiocese lawsuit serves as a warning sign to absolutely no one.

Well… no one but publishing companies. Which is why I’ll tell you this story anyway. It’s interesting.

Back in the 1960s, F.E.L. Publications licensed a few of their worship songs so the Catholics could put ’em in their hymnals. Once they found out naughty Catholics were making unauthorized copies of the hymnals, in 1972 they hiked their rates to $100 a year, and promised to forget all previous copyright infringements once the churches paid them a one-time don’t-make-me-sue-you fine of $500.

The parishes’ response was, according to official court documents, “less than overwhelming.” In fact, to avoid the whole infringement issue, Monsignor Francis Brackin of the Chicago archdiocese sent out letters to all their churches, telling ’em to stop using F.E.L. songs. In response to other dioceses’ requests, he sent them letters saying the same thing. F.E.L. decided to consider this “tortious interference with contractual relations”—in other words, it lost ’em a whole lot of business with all those other churches. So they sued.

F.E.L. was owned by Dennis Fitzpatrick, author of “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” I’ll just leave that there. You can fill in your own ironic comments.

In 1984, a jury awarded F.E.L. $190,400 in damages. Then, in one of those typical cases of American juries figuring you oughta win a jackpot, they threw in an extra $3 million in compensatory and punitive damages. That’s what made the papers. Of course, the Court of Appeals overturned the $3 million the next year, and F.E.L. got nowhere with further appeals—and, of course, no more business from Catholics—and folded. That’s that.

Still, that $3 million was enough to scare a lot of larger churches, especially if they knew nothing about copyright law, and knew nothing about how the case finally turned out.

It definitely got the attention of Howard Rachinski, music pastor of Bible Temple in Portland, Ore. From this he founded Starpraise Ministries, which is now CCLI. Since the beginning it offered churches blanket permission to use certain worship songs, which they now call the Church Copyright License.® (Yep, they trademarked the name.) Sign up with them, and you can make all the copies of sheet music you want. Nobody will sue. They promise.

Now yeah, if you want to get your hands on sheet music for any and every song you can think of, CCLI is definitely one legal route to it. And there are others. So’s going to the Christian bookstore and buying a book of popular worship songs. (They still have those, y’know.) So’s buying a hymnal. And so, interestingly enough, is listening to a song over and over again, and figuring out the chords. Publishing them will get you in trouble though. And printing them from somebody’s guitar tabs website can also get you busted, ’cause you didn’t pay for that.

But once you have paid for it, fair use applies: Go ahead and make copies so you can teach it to the worship band.

And once you’ve moved out of the non-profit realm and into the for-profit one, you definitely need to pay royalties. Doesn’t have to be through CCLI, though. You can go through ASCAP or BMI, or SESAC for Europeans. (Probably should, since these other companies include all the secular stuff too.) If you’re

  • in a band who’s trying to make a living, and wants to cover popular Christian songs;
  • running a business and wanna pipe Christian music over the loudspeakers;
  • making a movie and wanna depict people worshiping to current songs;
  • in a political campaign, and your candidate wants to warm up the crowd before his speech with some old-school Stryper;
  • in a church which actually isn’t a non-profit organization ’cause the pastors are into some shady stuff

—for all these reasons and more, you’re not exempt and need to pay royalties.

Yeah, some churches included. Some of ’em dabble in some not-all-that-non-profit activities. Your church’s bookstore and coffeehouse quickly come to mind. But most churches use those things as fund raisers for their ministries. Just about everything else they do with music is about worshiping God together—you know, legitimate church stuff. Stuff which falls under the exemption. But CCLI, and other royalty and rights management companies like them, have these churches believing they need to take at least $49 out of their budgets, money they would use for ministry, and send it to them lest the Man bust them for copyright violations.

That sound right to you?

“But those starving artists…”

Here’s the thing. Tell any church administrator “You don’t need CCLI,” and nearly all the time they’ll respond in fear. “No, that can’t be true. We need copyright protection.” ’Cause they’ve heard urban legends about people who were busted for copyright infringement. Lawsuits and fines for thousands of dollars. And they don’t wanna make their churches liable for any such thing. Better be safe than sorry.

Plus, they figure, CCLI is Christian. Or it’s run by Christians, anyway. And Christians would never con fellow Christians, especially struggling churches, out of money like that. There’s some commandment in the bible against stealing, isn’t there? Christians would never.

Plus those hardworking, starving musicians wrote all the Christian music for us to worship with. Don’t they deserve some royalty money?

Okay, I’ll work these issues backwards.

The purpose of worship music is the worship of God. It’s to do as Jesus did: To proclaim good news to the poor. Lk 4.18 If it doesn’t do that—if it’s a commodity, to be bought and sold—we call it simony after Simon, the Samaritan magician who wanted to buy the Holy Spirit as a parlor trick. Ac 8.14-24 Worship isn’t a commodity. Worship music was never meant to be such a thing. The fact people treat it as one, ’cause business people don’t see any economic difference between a popular Christian song and a popular secular song, is simply a sign we Americans have gone hugely astray, and are treating the blessings of grace like the instruments of Mammon.

The proper goal of a worship musician is the worship of God. Not to get famous, and if that happens we redirect people to Jesus. Not to get rich, and if that happens we redirect those riches to growing the kingdom. It’s to minister by helping fellow Christians worship God better; usually through music, sometimes through other means. Problem is, the music industry, even when it calls itself Christian, is about money. Not worship. They may like and approve of worship, but bottom line: If they don’t get paid, they wanna sue. The only reason they’ll go after poor college students who pirate songs off BitTorrent, but never sue churches, is because of churches’ copyright exemption. Their Mammonist goals are why churches needed, and got, that exemption.

If any worship musician’s thinking is, “Sure you can use my worship song… but pay me,” whether it’s pay them first or pay them last or pay them please, their goal obviously isn’t the worship of God. It’s wealth. It’s their song, not God’s; it’s their career, not the kingdom. Half the reason the Christian music industry cranks out unchallenging, insipid, Jesus-is-my-boyfriend junk is because they’re regularly pursuing Mammon instead of Jesus. Jesus pays later, but Mammon pays now.

“But what about the worker being worth their hire?” 1Ti 5.18 Fair enough, but in context this verse is about paying our ministers. It’s about not depriving them of the fringe benefits of their jobs. So… are these musicians ministers? Are they music pastors? Do they lead the singing at their churches? Or are they popular musicians, whose job is to crank out hits and sell them? ’Cause if they’re not ministers, the 1 Timothy verse doesn’t apply to them. And don’t give me that bushwa about how their song really ministers to you, so that makes ’em ministers. It does not. Stevie Wonder ministers to me all the time, but he ain’t no minister. If he ever claimed to be one, I’d assume he tried weed again.

If musicians are legitimate ministers, they’ve already got jobs. Hopefully they’re paid a living wage. They might sell albums of their music, and get some supplemental income from that. But they didn’t go into ministry so this world could make them rich. They went in to further the gospel. Money can get in the way of that, so they’re not gonna care about royalties. The worship of God is infinitely more important to them.

And if they’re pop musicians, not ministers… well actually, every time we sing their song, it’s free publicity for them. Free advertising. Gets people to buy their albums. Gets people to go to their concerts. Gets other musicians to purchase their sheet music.

It’s like when a preacher casually mentions in his sermon how he had a really nice meal at Applebee’s the other day. Does that mean he should pay Applebee’s for the mention? Most of us immediately recognize if any money changes hands (and it shouldn’t) it should be the other way round. Same when we play a pop star’s song in church, even if we’re doing it as worship. Why on earth are we paying them?

Next, the idea CCLI is Christian, and Christians would never exploit fellow Christians: If you really believe that, man are you gonna get reamed. Heck, if you’re paying CCLI’s yearly fees for songs you purchased years ago, for sheet music you have plenty of copies of, you already are.

Know any copyright lawyers? Good; have a chat with ’em. CCLI has. Those lawyers fully know what CCLI does and doesn’t do, what CCLI can and can’t legally claim. It’s why you can scour their website and discover CCLI provides churches no legal representation. You only get sheet music, and they’re the ones who won’t sue you for downloading it. You get access to their great big database. That’s not nothing; it’s kinda useful. But copyright protection? They don’t provide it. Churches don’t need it. They’re exempt.

So why don’t Christians realize this, and drop CCLI like that expensive extended warranty they just realized they don’t need? ’Cause of the Fear. We worry we do need copyright protection. Or will at some point. The music publishing companies are already annoyed at churches’ exemption, and would love to eliminate it. At some point they’re gonna purchase gain the support of just the right members of Congress, get ’em to close that loophole, and then we will need to pay royalties. Till then, the fact a lot of ignorant churches are already paying royalties, even though we needn’t, keeps the music publishers somewhat satisfied. But not completely. Mammon is a jealous god.

I don’t deny this scenario might happen. And if Congress changes the copyright laws on us, and CCLI actually starts to offer copyright protection, by all means sign up. (Or go with ASCAP; whatever.) Till then, does your church really need to pay that much for a fancy song database? And should you really be in business with people who aren’t upfront about what they actually do?

Oh, let’s not forget the scamming artists.

Before I call it a week, let me point out this fun little method by which you can tap some of CCLI’s sweet royalty cash. I first discovered this some years ago when I found “I Surrender All” wasn’t in my church computer’s database. (It was in the hymnal, though. But I didn’t know, at the time, I coulda just copied the hymnal.)

Any music published after 1923, from the English-language version of “How Great Thou Art” to Ten Steps Back’s “I Love Jesus with Mouth,” is under copyright. Copyright ends 70 years after the death of the author, and Congress regularly extends it to keep up with the death of Walt Disney. I’m not kidding. The Walt Disney Company has a lot of money vested in all of Disney’s creations, from Mickey Mouse onward. They’re determined none of that stuff touches the public domain.

“Public domain” consists of everything out-of-copyright, whose rights now belong to the American people. (Unless you’re in another country, in which case it belongs to your people, depending on your copyright laws.) No royalties; anybody can sing it; nobody can be sued for infringement. “I Surrender All” was published in 1896 in the hymnal Gospel Songs of Grace and Glory, so it’s public domain. Sing it to your heart’s content.

“I Surrender All,” also called “All to Jesus I Surrender” from its first line, was written by Judson Wheeler van Deventer; music by Winfield Scott Weeden. I just looked that up, by the way. I didn’t when I was looking it up on CCLI. All I did was punch “I Surrender All” into their search engine, and got 96 hits, 84 of which were titled “I Surrender All.” Why Christians can’t come up with unique names for their new songs, I dunno. Too busy surrendering all, I suppose.

The top hit was “I Surrender All” by Michael Adler, which I clicked on. Yep, that was the familiar song; “All to Jesus I surrender” and so on. Thing is, it was copyright 2005, and I used to sing this song as a child, so I knew something was amiss.

Deventer and Weeden’s version is public domain. But it came second on CCLI’s search engine. Most folks aren’t gonna click the second song. That’s not how people use search engines. If the first item gives ’em what they want, they go with that.

Adler changed a single line. Instead of “Let me know that Thou art mine” it’s “May I know Thy pow’r divine.” He also dropped the fifth verse; odd considering most Christians tend to shun the third. Anyway, Adler copyrighted his slight variation as his own work; Deventer and Weeden got no credit. Not like they’d collect any royalties anyway. Ordinarily CCLI just pockets that money, same as with all the 24,000 other public-domain songs in their database. Now Adler gets it.

How cool is this scam? All I have to do is tweak 24,000 public-domain songs (update the spelling, add an Amen at the end, move a single note up an octave), and copyright ’em under the name AAAAAAAAAAAA Worship Music. (Twelve A’s, ’cause 12 is God’s favorite number.) Then sit back and wait for overworked, hurried worship coordinators to mistake my CCLI numbers for the public-domain ones, and rake in the dough. Ka-ching!

I ranted about this some years ago, and Adler must’ve been Googling himself, for he came across it and commented. That’s the thing about the internet; you never know who might be reading. You can tell he was kinda annoyed, but trying to be Christian about it.

Dear K.W.

I just noticed my name scattered across your blog.

Whoa… I just wish my last name didn’t start with the letter “A”!!

Even “Brown Bannister” would have provided me sufficient coverage from your scathing remarks… heck, even “Andy Alibritton” would have done the job. Who knew that those guys ALSO wrote “I Surrender All”??

You learn something every day.

Surely there are more productive ways to spend the days God has called us to use to His glory.

Blessings to you,

Michael Adler

“Who knew that those guys ALSO wrote ‘I Surrender All’” indeed. Which is sorta my point: None of those guys wrote it, Adler included. He just got a mention ’cause alphabetical order puts him in a primo position to get mistaken royalties.

No, it’s not illegal. Still not right, though—a fact he may not recognize. If he were taking a songwriter’s class, and submitted “I Surrender All” in that manner, he’d get an F for plagiarism. But now that we’re outside of class, he can list it on CCLI, where instead of F’s and academic probation, your church pays him royalties.

But he’s right; surely there are more productive things I could point out. Like how you likely don’t need to pay for CCLI in the first place.