Q&A: Which music license does your parish need?

When a parish buys hymnals or missals, that copyrighted music is automatically licensed for performing in church. But when Mass is livestreamed, the license requirement changes.
When a parish buys hymnals or missals, that copyrighted music is automatically licensed for performing in church. But when Mass is livestreamed, the license requirement changes.

Navigating the ins and outs of what it means to legally use music during a Mass can be tricky, especially in the world of livestreaming. 

Leanna Boyd, contract and royalty administration manager for Oregon Catholic Press, the largest Catholic publisher in the United States, said there are roughly 35,000 to 40,000 music selections available through OCP. OCP and GIA Publications jointly own One License, which provides “non-commercial reprint permissions for more than 100,000 songs from over 340 different publishers and copyright holders,” according to ocp.org

Churches can license directly with OCP, or with One License (onelicense.net) for access to more Catholic publishers. Boyd answered some key questions about how parishes can legally use and livestream music during Mass. 


Because it’s “church music,” some may not think they need to get a license to play traditional hymns and other song choices. Why is that mentality wrong, morally and legally?

Traditional songs that are in the public domain, they can be used without permission … things fall into the public domain 70 years after the death of a composer and author. So, the copyright is maintained for quite a while after their death. So anything that is written, let's say in the 1960s, if that person dies, immediately after their death that song is still under copyright. But something written in the ’20s and let's say they die in the ’30s, that's all going to be in the public domain now. But for anything that's still under copyright, what’s important for people to remember is it's an intellectual property. So someone wrote that. They compose that music, they wrote the lyrics and it's like a piece of art, it belongs to them. And they can earn their income, their living, by selling that music through a publisher. So church music is no different than music written by Michael Jackson, or The Weeknd or any popular music today. It's their job.


How often would you say parishes play music that is copyrighted without obtaining a proper license? 

It’s probably pretty frequent. When I started doing this it was definitely more frequent than it is today, and I started working at OCP in 1991. I had the conversation with the churches daily that “No, this song is copyrighted. Yes, you need permission” … As church employees become younger, the younger generation is more aware of this nebulous copyright thought. 


Why is just having a hymnal not enough to legally stream the music during Mass? 

So when you purchase a product, you’re purchasing the use of that product. You don’t need permission to sing in church from the hymnal, because that's what is implied with the purchase of that product. But the purchase of that product doesn't give you the freedom to make extra copies on physical paper, or to stream your church service online. And how I try to explain to people is when you broadcast via the internet with streaming or a podcast, it’s no different than radio or television. … So you need permission to stream that. Otherwise you're violating copyright law. 


One License offers an annual reprint license — which allows reprinting copyrighted songs — and typically offers an additional podcast streaming license, allowing broadcast of copyrighted music. During the pandemic, the company has offered the podcast streaming license without the annual reprint license. Both reprint and podcast streaming licenses are required if a livestreamed Mass displays the words on the livestream to the music. 

Exactly. So it used to be you had podcast streaming on top of a reprint license. And now they can get that limited podcast streaming, which is just to podcast and stream the services … The reprinting of that music in church — you can use it, you can sing it, you can perform it without a license, whether you’re doing it from memory or from a purchased product. But if you need to make additional copies like for Masses during Christmas … people have enough of the hymnals or missals in the pews for their normal Sunday attendance, but they wouldn’t for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day Mass. So what they do is they reprint extra copies of the songs they're going to sing, but they need a license to do that. … A lot of churches put together song sheets for their Masses especially now because they can't have missals and hymnals in the pews that are touched multiple times on a Sunday, so they reprint on throwaway sheets; they need a license for that. Or if they're going to reprint the songs for next week in the Sunday bulletin so people know what is going to be sung next week, they would need a license for that.


What about for smaller parishes that might not have the money for a license? 

With One License … the pricing is based on the number of attendees (average weekly attendance), so they do break it down pretty small. Also OCP has a grant program that people can apply for every year. And those churches that don't have a lot of funds can use that money really in any way (to) enhance the music within their churches. (Applications will be accepted starting in mid-January 2021 at ocp.org/en-us/parish-grants)


Let’s say a parish does have a podcast streaming license. Is there anything else they have to do beyond that license? If they’re livestreaming the Mass, do they have to put on that post that they are licensed to use the music?  

I will always suggest it. So on their page, and One License might have different rules and their license would clarify that for them, but I always say if you're going to do it on your Facebook page and you're going to have a link to your streaming service, just make sure that on that link you say underneath it “all music covered under One License podcast streaming license” or something like that.


Where can a parish find music in the public domain that would not require a license?

If they have a missal or hymnal from any reputable publisher they will definitely put copyright information. When it comes to public domain, people don't always follow the same style, but what OCP does is we always, if there won't be any copyright symbol there, then typically we put the birth and the death date of the composer and author, down below the song. And then, what I've been telling people lately is go visit the onelicense.net site because they have a really good search tool where you could put in a song title, and it'll bring up information about that song. So let's say you put in “Silent Night.” It’s just going to come up with the birth and death date of the original composer. But if you put in “Here I Am, Lord,” it'll come up with “Copyright 1981 OCP. All rights reserved, used with permission.” So they can kind of see the difference there.


What if a parish plays a recording of a copyrighted song during Mass instead of a live performance? 

Sound recording is a separate copyright. So let's say OCP records “Here I Am, Lord,” which is a copyrighted song. “Here I Am, Lord” would be covered under the One License license (for singing in church), but if you wanted to stream our recording of it because you can't have the musicians in the church during Mass, then OCP has been granting that permission for our sound recordings to be used right now, at no extra charge, only because of the pandemic. Typically, those sound recordings are worth a lot of money so we don't allow people to use them freely. 


Why is it important that artists receive proper royalties?

OCP’s mission is to get the word of God out there, but we’re also here to protect the composers, our customers and us as a company so that we can still be functioning to provide this service. And all of our composers, this is their calling from God to write music that helps celebrate Mass. So for us to protect their copyrights, it protects their time that they can be devoted to writing music.

Aprille Hanson Spivey

Aprille Hanson Spivey has contributed to Arkansas Catholic as a freelancer and associate editor since 2010. She leads the Beacon of Hope grief ministry at St. Joseph Church in Conway.

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