Cinema That Stirs the Soul!

Is Your Church Breaking the Law?

Exhibiting DVDs in Church:

Is Your Church Breaking the Law?


Many churches are unaware that showing videos or DVDs in the church setting -- or even to a group of children in the nursery -- requires a special license and obedience to license restrictions.

The videos and DVDs that are available for sale or rent are licensed for "Home Use Only."  Legally, this means just what it says -- that you can play the program in your home but nowhere else.  Several years ago, the major studios tried to get this definition narrowed to include only related family members, though that did not survive court scrutiny.  However, the legal definition of "home" in copyright law is just what you would think -- your home.  You cannot exhibit the program legally in any public venue -- and for this purpose, a church (no matter how small) is defined as a public venue.

Twenty years ago, it was common for churches to photocopy copyrighted music in large quantities.  After a period of crackdown and well-publicized fines of some violators, churches became more aware of their responsibility to observe copyright law.  Many congregations purchase an annual music license from a group such as the Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) to permit them to reproduce and display lyrics legally.

But few congregations seem to be aware that a similar restriction exists for the display of videos or DVDs.  A license must be purchased, and the restrictions of the license observed.  Non-compliant organizations can in fact be sued and are liable for substantial fines for violating exhibition restrictions.

The same organization that offers the CCLI license offers a similar blanket license for video use, the Christian Video License.  This is available at; the annual fee depends on your congregation's average attendance.  The license allows churches to exhibit videos or DVDs from a specific list of distributors that have signed on to the CVLI agreement.  There are a bunch of these, including many Christian film distributors like Vision Video and Gospel Communications, and large distributors like Paramount, Disney, and Warner Bros.  But the list is not all-inclusive; Hallmark Entertainment is not there, for instance; so while  you can exhibit Tuesdays with Morrie (distributed by Buena Vista) you cannot show The Five People You Meet in Heaven (distributed by Hallmark) without obtaining a special license or permission directly from Hallmark entertainment.

There are also restrictions on the CVLI license that even churches that have purchased the license tend to ignore.  Your church is not allowed to advertise the movie title outside of your church building or membership.  As I write this, there is a church on my daily drive that has a major Hollywood flick title on their exterior sign -- a violation even if they are a license holder, which I suspect they are not.

If your congregation wants to hold public exhibitions beyond your membership (such as an outdoors neighborhood movie night) you must perchase a special exhibition license from an organization such as Swank Motion Pictures (  The exact price of the one-time license will vary depending on anticipated attendance and the popularity of the title.  These licenses will likely run somewhere between $150-$300.  You must obtain a special copy of the movie from Swank for the exhibition, you cannot just show a rented home copy.  And you cannot advertise the title of the feature outside your congregation!  Like it or not, that's in the agreement.

TrinityFilm is careful to abide by licensing restrictions.  We subscribe to the CVLI license.  In many cases we obtain direct permission from the distributor to deviate from the CVLI restrictions, thus allowing us to publicize the film title on our marquee and on our web site.  Where we do not have that permission, the title and specific description is shown on our "Members Only" page.  The public schedule will contain only a general description of the theme and type of the film.

Whether you agree with these restrictions or not, they are the law.  Churches should be careful to observe such laws unless they feel they truly violate some higher spiritual law.  As Paul wrote to Titus, "Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work." Titus 3:1.  When you exhibit films without properly obtaining a license, you are obtaining the benefit of the movie without properly compensating the film's distributor, producer, or creator.  The smaller Christian producing organizations already have grave difficulty raising funds to produce movies (I know, I'm a filmmaker myself) and the illegal showing of their films simply compounds the problem.  You wouldn't encourage members to sneak into movie theatres without paying.  Please don't do the institutional equivalent -- it is a poor witness!

The Rev. John Jackman is an award-winning filmmaker and pastor of Trinity Moravian Church.  He serves on the Board of Directors of the Triad Film Commission.

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