PHILADELPHIA — The COVID-19 outbreak has prompted parishes worldwide to livestream Masses, produce podcasts and upload worship videos. But even in a pandemic, copyright and fair use laws still apply, experts say.

Bible translations, liturgical texts, hymns and religious images are all subject to copyright, a constitutionally guaranteed form of protection for original works, whether they’re published or not.

Using these materials in various contexts requires both permission and generally the payment of fees.

U.S. copyright law does make allowances for fair use, public domain works and usage of materials in religious services, but parishes aren’t completely exempt from compliance.

For hymns in particular, “licenses exist to ensure that reprinted and reproduced music can be used legally,” said Brenna Cronin, general manager of One License.

Based in Chicago, Cronin’s firm provides licensing to worship communities for reprinting, projecting, podcasting or streaming services with congregational music. In turn, the royalties are equitably distributed to composers, authors and publishers.

Fairness is at the heart of licensing, said Mary Elizabeth Sperry, associate director of permissions and Bible utilization for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“In justice, it is money that (artists) are due,” Sperry said, stressing that for liturgical music composers, “royalties are a significant portion of their income, keeping the mortgage paid, food on the table and the lights on.”

That concern, along with the confusion often surrounding copyright, has intensified as a result of the pandemic, and rights organizations are working to adapt to emerging demands.

“Nobody was planning on COVID,” said Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth, executive director of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, or ICEL, which under the Vatican oversees the English translations of liturgical texts for the Roman rite. “We never thought of situations where people would need access (to worship aids) outside of church.”

Copyright and permissions issues “are not rocket science, but (are) not intuitive either,” according to Joy R. Butler, a nationally recognized attorney in the field of entertainment, media and digital technology.

Further complicating matters is a popular perception that usage rights don’t apply when texts, images and music are readily available online.

The Recording Industry Association of America notes on its website that “when you’re on the internet, digital information can seem to be as free as air.”

Yet Sperry said that in her webinars on copyright, she has pointedly asked participants, “What part of ‘thou shalt not steal’ don’t you understand?”

Even if posters ignore copyright regulations, social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube have both automated and manual processes for monitoring the use of copyrighted content, and routinely remove or block posts found to be in violation.

With livestreamed liturgies and devotions set to continue even as COVID-19 restrictions lift, and likely after, parishes should begin to review more closely their usage of protected materials, Cronin told, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

“We are very much in a ‘brave new world’ with the pandemic,” she said. “We understand that many organizations will have a learning curve to becoming proficient in copyright licensing.”

Permissions for the use of liturgical texts and Bible translations are more straightforward than for worship music, said Sperry, since “there are a very limited number of entities involved.”

The Confraternity of Christian Doctrine owns the copyright for the New American Bible, Revised Edition, or NABRE, which is the official translation used by the Catholic Church in the U.S.

Sperry said the copyright “ensures that the texts are being used properly” and without unauthorized changes to a work that took close to 100 scholars and theologians almost two decades to finalize.

Royalty fees from licensing the text to publishers aren’t for profit, she said, but instead fund Scripture scholarship and education.

The remaining texts of the Mass — those outside of the Scriptural readings — are copyrighted by ICEL, which also charges royalty fees to compensate scholars and to develop liturgical materials.

A parish’s purchase of lectionaries and missalettes normally covers the permission requirements for both the use of the Scripture and the Mass texts.

But with Masses moved online due to the “variable and uncertain situation” created by the pandemic, said Sperry, the U.S. bishops chose to handle copyright permissions in a “pastoral and prudent” manner.

Through Dec. 31 of this year, the bishops will not require permission to livestream Mass or the Liturgy of the Hours — also known as the Divine Office, the fixed intervals of prayer the church observes throughout the day.

The readings in English, and the Mass prayers and readings in Spanish, also may be included in digital or print worship aids through the end of the current liturgical year, Nov. 22.

While the permission is granted without charge, parishes must reprint the text verbatim and include the copyright acknowledgment found on the permissions page of the USCCB website,

However, the readings and other Mass texts are not permitted to be projected on screens or walls during liturgical services — nor can podcast recordings be made of the daily or Sunday readings, or of the complete NABRE text.

Like the USCCB, which is one of its member bodies, ICEL quickly issued “a gratis permission for the digital version of the liturgy to be used … as a basic pastoral response,” said Wadsworth.

The Liturgy of the Hours, which some parishes are praying online, is “a little more complicated,” he observed, since ICEL is not the exclusive copyright holder of all its texts, but sublicenses portions from other publishers.

With its revision now in progress, the Liturgy of the Hours and its licensing will be “the next big thing for ICEL” to manage, he added.

For liturgical and worship music, copyright issues become even denser, since a given song can actually be a mix of protected property.

Rights to the lyrics and melody of a song are owned by songwriters and the music publishers through whom they distribute their work.

But the recording of a song creates a new work that is owned by performers and record labels — who must first obtain permission from the song’s composers and publishers.

Using a recorded song online raises still more licensing issues, depending on whether the file is synchronized with a video, streamed, or available for download, Butler notes.

Simply uploading a version you’ve already purchased as an individual consumer doesn’t suffice, since labels, publishers, and performing rights organizations all have say in these cases.

Most parishes purchase hymnals that often contain “the work of at least 15 copyright holders,” said Sperry.

Singing those hymns during Mass and other services doesn’t require any additional clearance, since the licensing fees are incorporated into the cost of the hymnals.

Yet even hymns in the public domain, where copyright has expired or never existed because of the work’s age, can be tricky since composers can license their particular musical settings for such pieces.

So while the text to “Amazing Grace,” written by John Newton in 1772, is in the public domain, music publisher Oregon Catholic Press manages at least five separate arrangements of the hymn.

With livestreamed Masses generating fixed recordings of hymns that can easily be shared online, more comprehensive licenses such as the “podcast/streaming” option Cronin’s firm offers are becoming popular purchases for congregations.

As they enhance their digital presence, many parishes also are including images sourced online in their videos and on their social media platforms.

Sites such as Creative Commons, Canva, Pixabay and Flickr have become go-to resources for photos and graphics, but even these cannot guarantee that users won’t unintentionally step on creators’ rights.

Analysts observe that digital technology often outpaces the law’s ability to regulate it. Legal debate continues over whether GIFs and memes — through which millions of online users repurpose copyrighted images — are a kind of infringement.

But copyright complexity and legal limbo aren’t an excuse to throw up your hands and press record without clearances, said Cronin, who advises parishes to seek professional advice.

“For us, this is a justice issue,” she said. “We are more than happy to help an organization become copyright compliant, but it starts with having an honest conversation.”

Christian is a senior content producer for, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.