The answer may not be clear-cut
By Bob Smeitana
There’s a long history of pastors turning their sermons into books. Charles Spurgeon did it. So did Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, Dwight Moody and Charles Wesley, and a host of pastors since.
All hoped to get their message out of the church and into the world. Most made a bit of extra income along the way.
“They made money on books—but it was certainly not lifestyle changing money,” says Alan Phillips, associate general counsel for Lifeway Christian Resources. “That’s not the case now.”
The success of sermon-inspired books like The Purpose Driven Life—which sold more than 30 million copies—has turned sermons into potentially valuable commodities, says Philips.
That may be good for the publishing business and authors, but it raises a complex and sometimes uncomfortable legal question: Who owns a pastor’s sermon?
In the United States, that question is complicated by a section of the 1976 copyright law that deals with “work for hire.”
According to the copyright act, work for hire is defined as “a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment.”
That section of the law applies to newspaper reporters and writers at ad agencies, or curriculum writers for publishers like Lifeway. The copyright to their work belongs to the company that hired them.
A growing number of legal experts believe the “work-for-hire” rule also applies to a pastor’s sermons.
If writing sermons is part of a pastor’s job description, and they write the sermons while at the church office, then the copyright act likely applies, argues Richard Hammar, author of the Essential Guide to Copyright Law for Churches.
“Most clergy would be shocked to learn their sermons are works made for hire that are owned by their employing church,” Hammar writes.
In at least one high-profile case, a dispute over who owns the rights to a pastor’s sermons ended up in court. After leaving the Crystal Cathedral, Robert Schuller sued the church for $5 million for—among other things—the use of his past sermons. A bankruptcy court eventually awarded $600,000 to Schuller, according to the Los Angeles Times.
And it’s not only the pastor’s sermons that are affected by copyright. If a church’s music director or worship leader writes a song or new hymn as part of their job duties, that too may be considered work for hire.
Any books written by church staff also may be covered by the copyright act, if the writing was done as part of their job duties.
According to section 201(b) of the copyright law, all work for hire belongs to the employer “unless the parties have expressly agreed otherwise in a written instrument signed by them.”
Not all legal experts agree sermons are work for hire.
Some argue that pastors are hired to teach and give spiritual guidance to their churches, not to write sermon manuscripts. And many pastors preach from notes, so there’s no written sermon to copyright.
And what happens when a pastor changes churches or preaches the same sermon in more than one place? Do they need to get copyright permission from the church in those cases?
Advocates for pastors owning their own sermons point to the example of university professors. Most colleges have written policies allowing professors to hold the copyright to their lecture notes and books based off of their research and teaching, according to the American Association of University professors.
The issue of copyrights for sermons is rarely raised until a pastor becomes famous and the sermons become valuable property. That’s when things can get ugly, says Frank Sommerville, a Dallas-based attorney who specializes in copyright law.
The best way to deal with the issue of sermon copyrights, Sommerville advises, is to address them ahead of time.
“This is not a problem that gets easier to solve if you ignore it,” he says. “The longer you wait, the more expensive it gets.”
Getting it right
There are several options available to church leaders when it comes to copyrights.
Assign all copyrights to the church. A church can adopt what’s known as an “intellectual property” policy, which covers sermons or other written materials developed by church staff while on the job. The policy can make it clear those materials are work for hire and belong to the church. In some cases, congregations have given pastors or church staff a bonus if their work is published outside the church.
Assign all copyrights to pastors. A church can draft a written agreement that specifically assigns all copyrights of sermons to a pastor. This approach is similar to the one taken by colleges, which often allow professors to retain the copyright of their lecture notes.
Have pastors write their sermons at home. In this approach, pastors do all their writing on their personal computer, using their own software, in their spare time. If no church resources are used, then it is more likely the copyright belongs to the pastor. This approach can be used for church staff as well.
Give the copyright to a separate, nonprofit ministry. Pastors who have outside speaking engagements or who write books often set up a nonprofit ministry to handle income or copyrights. This approach is used by a number of well-known authors, such as Chuck Swindoll and Max Lucado.
The issue of sermon copyrights is often raised by publishing houses and is a standard question at B&H Publishing, says Alan Phillips. He’s developed a form to help pastors assign sermon copyrights to a nonprofit ministry, if that’s the route they choose.
When it comes to copyrights, he says, publishers want to make sure they’re doing business with the right person. “We want to pay whoever holds the copyright.”
Bob is the former senior writer for Lifeway Research. In September 2018, he joined Religion News Service, where he currently serves as a national writer.