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Copyright in Church.

An opinion/concept note by the Oyemaja Institute of Law.

Copyright refers to the exclusive right given to the originator of a creative work to reproduce that work over a specified period of time. Copyright infringement on the other hand occurs when a person uses or causes a work protected by copyright to be used without the license or authorization of the owner. In Nigeria, copyright is primarily governed by the provisions of the Copyright Act 2004.

Now, let's take it to church real quick

When worship gets so intense that all you want to do is throw your hands in the air and worship till tears stream down your face or dance till your feet hurt, the last thing on your mind is copyright and all its intricacies.

Recent happenings, however, have forced us to rethink copyright; most especially how it applies in religious settings. Before now, the focus was mostly on the "message" and not necessarily the "messenger". Now, with an increasing level of awareness of the existence of legal rights protecting creatives, quite a number of gospel artists have, in recent times, chosen to step up to enforce their rights against alleged copyright infringers.

Christian Music and Copyright

Music remains a very important part of religious worship. From hymns to contemporary worship songs; the history of Christian music goes as far back as before Christianity became an organized religion.

According to the Copyright Act; a work is eligible for Copyright Protection in Nigeria if it is original; produced in a fixed medium; authored by a Nigerian, a company domiciled in Nigeria or a country that is a party to a treaty that Nigeria is a party to. Also, the work must have been first published in Nigeria.

Once any work qualifies for this protection, the author is automatically protected under Nigerian Copyright law. It confers two classes of rights on the author; economic and moral rights. Moral rights refer to the right to be acknowledged as the author of the work. Economic rights on the other hand refers to the exclusive control over the; distribution, publication, reproduction performance or adaptation of the work.

It is also very possible for the rights to be conferred on more than one person if there are multiple people involved in the production and distribution of the song like an artist, a composer and a record label. Copyright can be transferred by assignment or authorizing another person to make use of the work.


It is clear from the foregoing that copyright does, in fact, apply to Christian songs; as long as they qualify for legal protection. That being said, it is important to note that the law in the second schedule of the Act; provide exceptions to the general copyright laws in a bid to balance the interest of the public with the rights of the author.

Unlike what obtains in some other jurisdictions, there is no express provision of the law protecting religious bodies by treating public performance in a place of worship as an exception. However, regardless of this lacuna in the Nigerian law, religious organizations may still seek to justify their use by relying on one of the exceptions provided under the copyright law.

These exceptions are; fair dealing, parody, pastiche or caricature, educational use and public domain (where the terms of copyright have expired. This happens 50 years after the author's death for a musical work or 70 years after a sound recording was made.

It must however be noted that fair dealing, which can be for the purpose of research, private use, criticism, review or reporting of current events must be accompanied by an acknowledgement of the author.

Similarly, given that there are not many judicial precedents in Nigeria in this regard; cases are likely to be decided on a case to case basis and with reference to similar foreign cases.

How then do religious organizations protect themselves from possible liability for unauthorized use of the work?

First, by asking. The thing is, many artists will be pleased to see that their music is played on a wider scale to an audience that they may otherwise have been unable to reach. It is therefore much better and safer to engage the authors of any work and seek their permission to be used asides from public performance at a place of worship.

Religious Bodies are also advised to seek the advice of legal practitioners from time to time so as to ensure that their actions remain within reasonable limits.

Finally, the legal penalty for copyright infringement can be in the form of injunctions or damages.

Your friend,


Oyemaja Law.

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