Ask the Expert: How do I protect and register a song (and earn revenue from it’s use in church)

Ask the Expert: How do I protect and register a song (and earn revenue from it’s use in church)

For budding song writers, the subject of song copyright is an important one. You’ve written a song, and are keen to make sure it is protected, and, if it starts to be used by other churches might even earn you some revenue. But how will you track that usage? And how will payment ever find its way to you? These are important questions for fledgling song writers and musicians, particularly those without other income to rely on.

As you are probably aware, most churches are registered with Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) and pay annual licenses for the rights to sing songs in church that are still under copyright (that’s most songs written in the last 70 years). Christian song writers certainly earn income from CD sales and touring, but a substantial income rightly goes to them via their publishers as their songs are sung in churches across the world.

Musicademy’s resident bass player, Matt Weeks is working on a song writing project at the moment composing congregationally singable songs of particularly use by smaller churches. Apart from the fact that the songs are great, we really liked Matt’s vision behind the project and know that many of our customers, being part of smaller churches, would feel the same. We were therefore keen to both encourage Matt in his writing, but also enable some of the songs to reach a wider audience.

The first job, because Matt is currently self publishing his songs (so doesn’t have a publisher to do it for him) was to get the song registered with CCLI in order to have it listed on the song usage returns that each church administrator completes  when songs are sung each week. We needed to learn how to go through that process and thought it would be helpful to share that with you too.

We asked Rich Burrough of CCLI in the UK to  explain the process of protecting and registering a song. Note that copyright law does vary between countries.

How to protect and register your song

So you’ve written a song. You’re playing it in your church and your congregation likes singing it. There’s a chance other churches may want to use it too. You may even be thinking of recording it. But what about copyright? And should you find a publisher? Oh, and where does CCLI fit in, and how to do you get the song on their authorised song list?

Copyright in a song

In the UK, copyright in your own song, or any other creative work, belongs to you automatically. As soon as it’s put into a tangible form (e.g. written words / music, or an audio recording), the copyright belongs to you and it is protected by copyright law.

You do not have to register the song with any kind of authority in order for it to be protected.

However, you may wish to take some steps to prove that you were in possession of the work at a certain date. One way of doing this is to send yourself a copy by special delivery post (which gives a clear date stamp on the envelope), leaving the envelope unopened on its return. Alternatively you could lodge your work with a bank or solicitor. It is important to note that this does not prove that a work is original or created by you, but may show a court that the work was in your possession on a particular date.

The UK Intellectual Property Office currently provides the following advice:
“To help protect your copyright work, it is advisable to mark it with the © symbol, the name of the copyright owner and the year in which the work was created. Although this is not essential, it will let others know when the term of protection started and it should then be possible to calculate whether it has ended or not. It will also indicate who the owner was at that time in case it is then necessary to approach them should you need to ask permission to use the work.”

Publishing your song

If others are interested in using your song, the next step to consider is publishing it. The role of a song publisher is to administer and promote songs on behalf of the song owners and talking to a number of publishers will help you decide what’s right for you. A database of all the publishers signed with CCLI can be found here.

CCLI is not a publisher, but instead licenses the reproduction of the catalogues of some 3,000 publishers worldwide.  If your publisher is part of the CCLI licence programme, they should register your song(s) with CCLI on your behalf. Although you can register your songs directly with CCLI, in order for you to benefit from doing so, your works should be widely used in churches and/or schools. If this is not the case then there would be no benefit to you in registering with CCLI – a copyright owner will only receive earnings from CCLI if the use of their works is reported to CCLI by licence holders.

Either way, once your songs are registered with CCLI, churches will be able to reproduce them under the terms of their copyright licences.  Provided these churches properly report when they reproduce your song(s) you would begin to receive royalties, subject to the terms of your publisher contracts.

If you want to register with CCLI as a copyright owner, you’ll need to provide written agreement by signing the CCLI General Agreement and one or more CCLI Program Agreements. These agreements permit CCLI to sell licences to churches and schools to reproduce your song(s) for use in non-commercial worship activities. These agreements are non-exclusive and you retain all rights to your song(s). For further information contact CCLI by calling 01323 436104 or email [email protected]


CCLI logoDrawn by its heart to serve the Church, Rich Burrough has looked after UK Communications for CCLI since 2013 having formerly worked for a leading Christian record label for more than a decade. Rich is passionate about local Church, local mission and family. If he had any spare time, he’d spend it cycling, travelling and taking photos, ideally all at the same time.