I saw a link yesterday to a January 8 article in Christianity Today about a question that is becoming increasingly significant in the modern media age. The article describes the problem, “Who Owns the Pastor’s Sermons?” That used to be an insignificant issue. It was hard to get a book published or get a radio ministry that produced income. But with the explosion of self-publishing and podcasts and monetized internet options and PayPal, there are a lot of ways for pastors to make a little income from their messages and writings.
But hold on a second, preacher!
You may be taking profits from material that does not belong to you. Copyright law protects the author and grants him rights, but there is a category called “works made for hire.” If an employee (and yes, you are a church employee as a Southern Baptist pastor – or you ought to be by IRS regulation) produces a work as a part of his employment, then the copyright belongs to the employer.
There is an online document from Copyright.gov that you ought to read, called “Works Made for Hire.” The law on the subject seems to be pretty clear. (NOTE: we have two or three lawyers who are regular readers/commenters on this site. I am not a lawyer. I’ve studied this and I THINK I understand it, but if one of our SBC legal team wants to weigh in, feel free!). Here is a statement that makes things pretty clear.
“If a work is made for hire, an employer is considered the author even if an employee actually created the work.“
The document then goes on to give a definition of “work made for hire.”
“a work prepared by an employee in the scope of his or her employment.”
Couldn’t be much more clear, could it? You church hired you to prepare and preach sermons. The copyrights to your sermons belong, by law, TO YOUR CHURCH! If money is made from those sermons, it belongs to the church and not to the pastor. Books prepared from sermons are covered as well. It is likely that if you write (a book, or even a blog) and do so as an extension of your ministry, using your work computer or in the church office, copyright on that material also belongs to the church.
As I understand it, the law is pretty clear and unequivocal on this topic. The copyrights on the sermons you preach belong to your church. Before you rail against the unfairness of it all, this is pretty standard business in other companies. I had friends who developed products for a major aerospace industry in Cedar Rapids. In fact, the copyright was in their name. However, the copyright was owned by the company and the employee got a pittance of a bonus for the work.
This raises some issues, of course.
- What happens if I preach a sermon I prepared before I came to my current church, while employed at another church? Who owns that sermon – Northbrook or Southern Hills (or even Drakes Branch or First Baptist, Tequesta)?
- How do I distinguish between what I write as an employee and what I write as an individual?
- Can a church sue its pastor for royalties from published works (the answer is, I think, yes). I doubt they would, but they could.
There is a solution to this problem, of course. If you are going to write and publish, you need an approved and published agreement with your church that specifically grants you the copyright to your messages. Just spell it out!
I did that long ago, since I have been writing (and seeking to publish) for a long time. I had an agreement with my previous church, where I served for nearly 15 years, and I brought that agreement forward to Southern Hills when I came on here. The agreement needs to be fair to both parties.
- It needs to clarify copyright ownership of materials produced as a church employee.
- It needs to clarify some sort of fair use by the church – they’ve already paid for the use of your sermons!
Here is a copy of my agreement as it appears in our Employee Policy Manual at SHBC.
Works for Hire Policy
David Miller shall be granted copyright ownership to all material, in form, content, and creative content, developed by him during his tenure at Southern Hills Baptist Church. The church shall have the right to use the pastor’s image and materials in its ministries without payment of royalties during his tenure. Materials developed for use in the church may be produced and used without royalties even after the pastor’s tenure ends.
This policy makes three specific points.
- I own the copyright to everything I preach, write or prepare. When I go, it goes with me. I can publish it as I please. If God blesses and I ever actually make money on my writings or messages, it is mine to keep.
- The church can use any materials I produce during my tenure without paying me any royalties beyond the compensation package they already give me. If I make royalties on my writings, it won’t be from Southern Hills.
- Any materials that I produce for the use of the church – Sunday sermons, study materials, whatever – can be used by the church in perpetuity for its own ministries.
It seems like a fair bargain to me and neither church has blinked an eye (perhaps they do not believe that I am really going to make any money from publishing – a fair belief at this point) at this agreement. It is in our policy manual, approved by the church.
Let me be as clear as I can. If you do not have such an agreement with your church, they own your sermons, they own any books produced from your sermons and they own the rights to anything you write as a part of your employment. Just assume, if you do not have an agreement similar to the one I posted above, your church owns the copyrights to everything you preach, write or produce. That’s the law.
I do not think that it is unethical for me to assert my own copyrights over materials I produce. But it must be done by a legal agreement – approved by the church.
If you do not have an agreement with the church defining copyrights, then I would conclude with the following two assertions.
- You need to get an official (in writing, church-approved) agreement defining copyrights.
- Until you do, the church owns all the copyrights.
I’d love to hear from some of our lawyers. I think I’m on solid ground here, but I have yet to pass the bar.