Prelude: Copyright Justice

January 30, 2024
gold copyright symbol on blue background

The theme of this issue is copyright justice. How do we ensure that we are using material in the most appropriate manner, giving credit, and in many cases, paying royalties to a creator?

First, let us begin with what copyright is. According to the Canadian Intellectual Property Office, “Copyright protects your creation. When you own the copyright in a work, you control how it is used in order to protect its value. Others who want to use the work have to buy or otherwise get your permission. Copyright is the exclusive legal right to produce, reproduce, publish or perform an original literary, artistic, dramatic or musical work. The creator is usually the copyright owner. Your copyright exists in Canada during your lifetime and for 70 years following your death. After that, the work is in the public domain, and anyone can use it. This is true for most works, but there are exceptions.” To view a short (three-minute) YouTube video on copyright by the government of Canada, search What Is Copyright in Canada?

Gathering is a community that intentionally shares materials. But just because we share, and the creator has offered consent to all of us to use their work, that doesn’t mean you can use it freely. You still must give credit. If there are restrictions on the time frame that it can be used, please abide by those restrictions. If you use the material in a way that it wasn’t intended (e.g., turning a poem or prayer into a song), you must ask permission of the original creator. And with most Indigenous creators, if they share something with you and your community, you should ask permission again before sharing that same work with a different community or in a different context.

In this digital world, it is so simple and fast to share things, to pass a work around without thinking. It’s convenient and easy to scan a piece of music and send it to someone. But we do still need to think about it! As musicians, not thinking about copyright hurts other musicians, our very own colleagues. Many rely on payment for usage as a portion of their income. As one of my musician colleagues said, “Using something without permission is stealing!” If you want to use something, check to make sure it is covered under one of the copyright licences (One License or CCLI) the congregation you work with should have. Then make sure to report the usage.

In an article in the Spring 2023 issue of The Hymn, author Anne T. Gilliland discusses copyright laws in the United States, but she occasionally alludes to the laws in Canada, which bear some similarities. The first similarity is that a creation receives copyright as soon as it has been created. You no longer have to “apply” for copyright. But the downfall of automatic copyright at the time of creation (the term she uses is “fixation”) is that many copyrights can’t be traced once some time has elapsed, because they are not registered anywhere.*

In the United Church, at the Church in Mission Unit and at Gathering, we get many questions about copyright, and sometimes we just don’t have the answers to your questions. But the important thing is to keep asking the questions. Do the homework and due diligence to try your best to find copyright holders. After all, one of the Ten Commandments is “You shall not steal.” Yes, it takes time, something many of us seem to have very little of these days! But it’s a question of justice!

For more information, read the "Exploring ...  Copyright Justice" section of this Gathering issue (L/E 2024, Year B).

Tammy-Jo Mortensen, Music Editor

* The Hymn Volume 74, No. 3, Spring 2023, p. 40