Understanding Church Intellectual Property

By December 3, 2019 Church
Understanding Church Intellectual Property

One common aspect of church life is the creation of new works. Ministers write sermons to deliver at worship services. Choral and worship directors and employees compose musical pieces and arrangements for performance at services. Sunday school plans and lessons are composed. Audio-visual projects are created. Art is crafted. Books are written. These things are usually considered intellectual property by the law.

The question becomes: who owns all of this output?

It may not be as simple as it first appears to classify the ownership of intellectual and creative productions. But doing so is vital for the leadership of a worship community to undertake—both for the protection of the church’s rightful property and to ensure that the talents of employees are not exploited unduly.

When a person creates an original work, the default standpoint is that this person is its author. But the law makes an exception to this in the concept of works made for hire—which is what occurs when an employee creates something in the course of their work. In this case, the employer is considered the author of this work.

In order for a work to be automatically considered a work for hire—and thus legally the property of the church—the person who makes it must be an employee of the church, and the creation of the work must have been done within the scope of their employment. Factors that may come into account when considering whether the work has fallen within this scope include whether the work was composed or created on church property or using church equipment (or both), whether any church personnel were involved in its creation, and whether it was created during office hours.

On the other hand, even work created by a pastor can be considered the pastor’s personal intellectual property if he or she created it on their own time, without the use of church property or personnel.

In order to avoid any confusion (or litigation) over who owns a work of intellectual property, it is highly advised that a church create and enforce a works-made-for-hire policy and agreement, to be signed by each employee of the church when hired (or as soon as reasonably possible after its adoption). These, again, can be complex—some even stipulate shared ownership.

Provident Law’s church and nonprofit attorneys are here to help with establishing and crafting such policies and agreements. We recognize how essential creative output is to a church, and we stand ready to counsel and serve the churches of Arizona. Contact us to learn more.