One common myth that people believe is that if something is on the internet it is free to use. However, this isn’t the case.

September 21, 2023

What Your Church Needs to Know About Copyright Laws

My church recently received a cease-and-desist letter from a company that claims we used an image without permission and now owe thousands of dollars. Our church uses images we find on the internet. Aren’t those okay to use?

Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common scenario. Often church ministries look for images on Google or other search engines to use in their bulletins, presentations, or even for church websites. The problem is that doing so risks violating copyright law. 

Copyright law provides creators of certain works the exclusive rights to display, distribute, perform, make derivatives of, and copy their works. One common myth that people believe is that if something is on the internet it is free to use. However, this isn’t the case. In fact, there are companies that, with the use of content recognition software, scour the internet for images that are being used without proper permission. Many ministries have ended up having to pay multiple times what a license would have cost on the front end in penalties after the fact. And under U.S. copyright laws, these penalties could get quite pricey (up to $150,000 per infringing item). 

So, what should churches and ministries do if they want to use images or other creative works? First, consider using images that you personally create. For example, if you want to use images of a sunset or fruit as part of an illustration, see if you can take the photo yourself.  Then you become the owner of the copyrighted work. Second, you should see if there are images that you can use that are already in the public domain. Copyright protections only last for a set amount of time and after that a work is free for the public to use. For current works, a copyright lasts for the life of the creator of the work plus 70 years. However, for works created before 1978 the length of copyright protection varies depending on when it was created. Finally, if the work that you want to use is still copyright protected, make sure you get permission before using it. What about images found online where you can’t tell if the image is protected by copyright or not? Well, the best thing to do in those instances is to find another image where you can get clear permission to use the work. A great source for images is through a stock image company or finding images that are licensed through a public copyright license. 

For more information about copyright and how to properly use copyrighted images please visit the copyright basics training at NAD Big Data and Social Media:  

Jennifer Gray Woods is the lawyer for the Lake Union Conference, as well as the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director.