Ask the Expert – What are the copyright implications of adapting secular songs for worship?

Ask the Expert – What are the copyright implications of adapting secular songs for worship?

Nick Clarke from Guildford in the UK asks:

“As a drummer in a music group playing in worship services where we also cover some secular songs, I see how well they are often received by congregations. I am a big fan of a couple of secular songs which I believe can be adapted with some small changes in the words to give them a real Christian flavour and feel.
I would like to know the legal position regarding copyright and royalty entitlement if for instance we recorded these songs with small changes for commercial gain – clearly acknowledging the basis of the original song and the songwriters – or performed them in say a festival environment i.e. receiving payments and sharing them with the original songwriters. I heard Chris Evans speak recently about artists “changing a word and taking a third (1/3rd)”.
I am not expecting worldwide hits (!) but would like to be clear (and responsible) about any right or obligations that would go with such a recording / performance.
I would be grateful for any help and advice you can provide. Keep up the good work with the newsletter – especially the drum sections and content!”

We asked CCLI for their response to this question:

Basically Nick, you can’t make any changes to someone else’s work without the permission of the owner regardless of whether it is for commercial gain or even just for a time of worship. The owner has economic rights and moral rights which protect him/her for acts such as this. If anyone was collecting 1/3 royalties it would be through a fixed contract with the copyright owner.

It’s also worth noting that unless stated in a contract the ownership of the new work with new words is with the original owner.

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Ask the Expert – How to copyright and licensing songs I have written