Do You Really Need A CCLI License?

by MBG


If your church is like mine, you probably have been led to believe that the CCLI license is a must have. You probably think that it enables you to make copies of music for any purpose. I am afraid that there is a lot of false information out there about what the CCLI license does and what it covers.

In the past year, I took over the piano playing duties in our church. While cleaning out some miscellaneous music items from our church office at about the same time we also found our renewal information for our CCLI license. Though we had carried the license for years, we took a fresh look at it what it covered. To be honest, we were shocked to find that we were completely wrong in what we thought it did.

The CCLI License

CCLI's Church Copyright License does not give you the right to copy any music for any purpose.

CCLI stands for Christian Copyright Licensing International, a private company based in the U.S. and founded by Howard Rachinski. Essentially CCLI works to bridge the needs of church worship and the enforcement of copyright laws. They have worked out agreements with many copyright holders so that churches may in some instances reproduce copyrighted works. As part of the agreement, these copyright holders receive royalties.

CCLI offers many products to address needs of churches, but the most famous is their Church Copyright License. For a fee based on the church's size, the church gains permission to use some 200,000 songs through agreements with writers and publishers.


A copyright guarantees the creator of a work exclusive right to any distribution or publication of their work. In our discussion of music copyrights, it means that the writer of a song "owns" the song. If you want to use a writer's song, which is their property, you need to either have permission or pay for its use. When you purchase a songbook, each songwriter is basically receiving a small royalty for the sale of their song.

Photocopying sheet music then is practically theft. You are using someone else's property without permission or compensation. If you are caught doing I believe you can be fined for each violation. That means each copy of each copyrighted work.

What CCLI Covers

CCLI's Church Copyright License does not give you the right to copy any music for any purpose. It only applies to covered songs through CCLI's agreements with publishers and songwriters, so not every single copyrighted song is fair game. I think most Christian publishers are covered, but you need to check the CCLI website for each individual song.

Here's a list of some things it specifically covers. Without the license you could not do these with permission from the song's copyright holder.

The license only covers reproduction of copyrighted music for use in congregational worship. It does not cover any use for special music such as choirs and groups.

Sounds like it covers a lot, but here's some things it does not cover.

The license only covers reproduction of copyrighted music for use in congregational worship. It does not cover any use for special music such as choirs and groups. I know from experience that many people think that this is covered, but it is not.

What CCLI Says

I personally think that the folks at CCLI could do a much better job explaining their product. There just isn't a whole lot of information on their website about the technicalities of what is covered and what is not. You can see what they say here.

I became very confused when I first started looking at this, so I emailed their customer service. I inquired specifically about if the license covered copying music for specials and choirs. I received a reply that I am quoting from below. I have a feeling that much of this is a standard reply, but it really cleared up much of my confusion.

Here's what they said:

"The CCLI license permits the church to copy the lyrics, as well as the music, provided the following three points apply:

"1. The song is copyrighted by a publisher contracted with CCLI. To verify the song's coverage, you may use "Song Search" located at: .

"2. The purpose of making the copy is to assist the congregation in singing or to teach the congregation a new worship song. The license would include the worship leading of any ministry solely sponsored by this church. The license would not cover the permission to make copies for the choir, or any performing individual or group, to use while they are performing a special number.

"3. The lyrics and guitar chords may be copied from any source; however, the music may only be photocopied, or scanned, from congregational songbooks, such as Hymnals or Praise & Worship congregational books. It is not necessary to own these songbooks.

"Music from any type of an arrangement book (choral, solo, instrumental, Worship Leader/Team edition, Piano edition, etc) may not be duplicated."

Using the License

Not only do you need to consider what is or is not covered, but you also need to pay attention to the proper procedures of using the license. Let's run it down as a scenario. Let's say you are wanting to put the words of "Because He Lives" by Bill Gaither in your church bulletin. Here's what you have to do:

1. Does the use meet those covered under the license? This particular use is covered according to the CCLI website.

2. Is the song covered by the license? You can check this by going to the Song Search page on their website. "Because He Lives" is covered, you can see so here.

3. According to this page of the CCLI website, every copy of the music has to include "song title, writer credit(s), copyright notice, and your churchís CCLI license number". This must be displayed on every copy even if it is displayed on a screen.

One other little thing is that every two and a half years you must report your activities covered by the license for a six month period. CCLI contacts you and you are supposed to report such things as copies made. I am not making this up, you can see it on their website here. Since I am new to all this and have not seen this done, I am not familiar with this process.

Do You Need CCLI?

We made the decision at our church that we did not. It did not cover what we wanted to use it for.

Your church may need it. If you display copyrighted songs over projection screens, you need it. If you want to be able to put together a "chorus book" or something like it and include copyrighted songs, you need it. If you record copyrighted songs and distribute or sell these recordings, you probably need it. If you want a little peace of mind, you may want to go ahead and get it.

Staying Legal Without CCLI

It is possible to do everything legally and not need a CCLI license. To do so you need to honor all copyright laws. Easy enough right?

It is possible to do everything legally and not need a CCLI license.

To do this, you cannot make or have illegal copies of music. You'd better be prepared to have enough copies of books and sheet music around. If you have illegal copies of music, destroy them now. Don't wait.

You can also contact individual copyright owners and request permission to reproduce their works. Normally they will ask a small fee per each copy made and require information regarding their permission accompany each copy. My church actually did this a couple of years ago with an out-of-print Christmas play. I wasn't directly involved in that process, but we were able to secure permission for I think just a couple of dollars for each copy of the play. In the end that is a whole lot cheaper than tracking down copies of the books!

One last option is to use Public Domain songs. These are songs that have expired copyrights (older than 1923 I think is usually safe) or have been assigned this status ("Shoutin' Time In Heaven" is public domain for some reason). Be careful though. Just because a song is Public Domain doesn't mean you can copy it from any source. Copying from a music book that is under copyright is bad even if the song is public domain.


As Christians we should strive to obey God and man. We should not steal another man's property, which is essentially what you do when you violate copyright laws. We should obey the law. Period.

To be right in this matter takes a lot of effort. The CCLI license is great for what it covers, but you may find that it doesn't fit your needs. Even if you don't have the license, you can still be legal if you are careful.