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How do you know whether your use of a sermon, illustration, excerpt, story, or quotation is a permissible "fair use"?

The U.S. Copyright Law provides no definitive answer to this question but rather provides four criteria that can be used as a defense against the claim of copyright infringement:

"The purpose and character of the use … " Because a sermon is considered an educational use, and is not generally charged for, this factor generally weighs in favor of sermonic use.

"The nature of the copyrighted work … " The law particularly frowns upon excerpting highly valuable works, such as music lyrics, unpublished memoirs, images, etc. So preachers should carefully limit their use of any such works.

"The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole." It is unfair to a copyright creator, and illegal, to use a great deal of the work, or the central part of the work, without obtaining permission for, and paying for, that use.

"The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work." If people who hear this illustration could thus not have to buy the entire magazine article or book, this would weigh against the use. In most sermons, however, reading a short excerpt from a book does not negatively affect the marketability of the book.

We believe that the content on our website fully meet these criteria, or if they don't, we have contacted the creator/author and obtained permission (and paid) to use their material. In nearly every conceivable case, subscribers can freely use this content in sermons or teachings without violating copyright. Most inclusions in a no-charge church newsletter would be acceptable. However, if you charge for the material (example: you use the illustrations in a book for which you receive an advance or royalties; or you use them in handouts for a paid-admission seminar), you usually need to contact the original creator for permission. In a sermon, mention the source of any extended excerpt, and if you put your sermon or teaching in print, always give full citation for any excerpt.

To read more about copyright law, see:

United States Copyright Office

When Copying Is Ok—The 'Fair Use' Rule

Cyberspace Copyright: Fair Use

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