Church posts poem on website, and learns an important lesson in copyright

Church posts poem on website, and learns an important lesson in copyright


By Tiffany Vail
Associate for Communication

So you think copyright law doesn't really  apply to your church, since you're a non-profit? Or maybe you figure no big time copyright lawyers will come knocking on your door over something printed in your modest church newsletter?

Think again.

A Massachusetts Conference church recently received a letter demanding $2,500 in damages for printing a copyrighted poem in their monthly newsletter. A parishioner had used the poem - The Dash, by Linda Ellis - in a tribute to his mother written for Mother's Day.

As it turns out, the poem, which pays homage to "the dash" between a person's birth and death dates, is often read at funerals, and a number of churches, synagogues and other organizations have made the mistake of printing it in newsletters and posting it online. Some have received letters seeking $5,000 or even $7,500 in damages, according to various articles online. Ellis' website explicitly denies anyone the right to publish her poem, and she is known to aggressively pursue those who print or post it without permission.

The Dash Strikes AgainIn this particular case, the church was covered by its UCC Insurance Board policy, and the Board negotiated a settlement with Ellis.

"We were fortunate that we were covered for this type of loss, so it did not come out of our pocket," said the church's pastor, who preferred her church not be named.  "What was not so fortunate was that an article concerning this very poem was published in the UCC Insurance Board newsletter in the Fall of 2012 and I never saw it. I would urge our sister churches to read the UCCIB newsletter so as to keep on top of what’s happening for all types of insurance situations." (The article, shown at right, is on page 4 of the newsletter, downloadable here.)

And while the details surrounding The Dash seem to be unusual, it  should serve as an important reminder about copyright. Just because something can be found on the Internet - whether it is a poem or a photo or a news article or a piece of clipart - that does not mean it can be freely copied. Even items that do not explicitly state they are copyrighted may in fact still have legal protections. Never copy something and publish it unless you are sure that is permissible. When in doubt, ask the owner of the source website.

More about copyright and churches:

Copyright and the Church - a comprehensive overview article on copyrights, licenses and more on the United Church of Christ website.

Other sources of information:

MUSIC: Copyright 101: Top Ten False Copyright Myths
This link leads to a whole section on copyright and church music by The United Methodist Church General Board of Discipleship. It is well worth exploring, and includes articles on live streaming worship, printing hymns in worship bulletins, etc.

SHOWING MOVIES: Copyright information for churches who show videos and DVDs
A helpful article by former MACUCC Resource Center Director Martha Butler Cook

THE BIBLE: Permissions policy for using quotations from the New Revised Standard Version of The Bible
Yes, more recent translations of the Bible are copyrighted. The New Revised Standard Version may be quoted and/or reprinted up to 500 verses without express written permission of the publisher, if done so as stated on this page by the National Council of Churches.

Sources for LEGAL & FREE pictures and graphics:

We've all done it. We need a photo to illustrate something, and we turn straight to Google Images. But keep in mind, many of the images found this way are copyrighted. Here are some sources for images that explicitly give permission for them to be used. - free stock photos. Be sure to read the restrictions/requirements of the photograph who uploaded the photo you wish to use.

Many Flickr users choose to make their photos available for use for non-commercial purposes. Find out more here:  - church media shared by thousands of Christian artists. Search videos, photos, logos, church bulletins, Powerpoint graphics, etc. (many quality items are free; some require purchase)




tiffany vail cropped.jpg
Tiffany Vail

Tiffany Vail is the Director of Media & Communications for the Southern New England Conference.

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