Who Owns the Pastor’s Sermon? Church or pastor?

Who Owns the Pastor’s Sermon? Church or pastor?
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Who Owns the Pastor’s Sermon?

Church or pastor? When sermons become books that make millions in royalties, the answer is important.

Since the following story appeared in the January/February print issue of CT, we’ve received questions from readers asking what they or their pastors should do about their sermons. We’ve also consulted with our in-house legal expert, who has written volumes (literally) on the nature of copyright law as it pertains to churches. He stands by our reporting as accurate, but warns that churches and pastors are wading into legally unprecedented territory. “Line up 10 legal experts, and they will give you 10 slightly different answers to the question, ‘Who owns the pastor’s sermon?'” he said. Thus, readers should take the following report as an accurate assessment on a legally thorny issue, not direct legal advice. The story has also been updated to reflect nuances from a source. —Katelyn Beaty, managing editor, CT magazine

In the late 1970s, Sealy Yates was sitting in his California law office when Chuck Swindoll paid him a visit. Swindoll was then a relatively unknown pastor at First Evangelical Free Church in nearby Fullerton. He had run into some legal trouble and wanted Yates’s advice. At issue: Who owned Swindoll’s sermons—Swindoll or First Evangelical?

A few years earlier, Swindoll had allowed a friend to launch a radio program called New Standard for Living, which broadcast his sermons. The program had done well, and now Swindoll wanted to take a leadership role in the radio ministry. But his friend balked, and their dispute seemed headed for court. Swindoll wanted to avoid a lawsuit, and Yates asked if he could mediate the dispute.

51 Comments

  • Louise Cummings
    Reply November 11, 2019

    Louise Cummings

    Pastors study and pray and follow God , on what he preaches to the Church. I praying he is following what God wants. If he does. Then the Church gets blessed. And sinners gets saved.

  • Troy Day
    Reply November 11, 2019

    Troy Day

    this is important Jim Price Michael Ellis Carter Jr.

  • Jim Price
    Reply November 11, 2019

    Jim Price

    Some pastors set up a legal form to give them permission and legal rights to any creative work they do, best to do that early before anyone sees dollar marks. Osteen and Haggee are two examples where they get the proceeds from their work ( not just sermons ). Have rights to your pictures and likeness as well.

  • Troy Day
    Reply November 11, 2019

    Troy Day

    Jim Price I could say a lot about this but lets take an example our good pastor Ed Brewer He owns his sermons BUT if sermons are created on the church’s paid time and salary shouldnt they belong to the church that paid for it? Same as royalties

  • Jim Price
    Reply November 11, 2019

    Jim Price

    Once or twice I have seen preachers give money back to the church of their own free will. It’s an issue that I have never given much thought to. But Professors usually get paid by their college and if the Pro. writes a book or gives lectures off campus he usually gets to keep the rewards. Also engineers who work for companies have a clause that says if they invent anything that they get a portion of the rewards. Many engineers have become rich doing this.

    • Troy Day
      Reply November 11, 2019

      Troy Day

      most dissertation royalties go to the school

  • Jerome Herrick Weymouth
    Reply November 11, 2019

    Jerome Herrick Weymouth

    The Pastor who prayed, studied, and spell checked. It is his work and not the properity of the local body.

    • Troy Day
      Reply November 12, 2019

      Troy Day

      did he / she do all that on the clock WHILE being paid with the money of the sad local body?

    • Jerome Herrick Weymouth
      Reply November 12, 2019

      Jerome Herrick Weymouth

      Troy Day
      And if he pioneered that church, and started it in his home, and then moved to a building, and has an growing church, and then under the leading by God moves on to start another church in another city. Those sermons are his and not the property of the grumpy deacon board.

  • Susan Collins
    Reply November 11, 2019

    Susan Collins

    Isn’t the sermon to be merely scripture reading with explanation of that scripture?
    The word of God is of no private interpretation.

    • Troy Day
      Reply November 12, 2019

      Troy Day

      Go to a book story and check copyright on ANY Bible sold for money in that store. What then?

  • Larry Dale Steele
    Reply November 11, 2019

    Larry Dale Steele

    It’s pretty sad that this is even a discussion

    • Troy Day
      Reply November 12, 2019

      Troy Day

      why do we feel this way about money

  • James P Bowers
    Reply November 11, 2019

    James P Bowers

    No, dissertation royalties DO NOT go to the schools. Students own their dissertations. Many have them published as books. If there is not an intellectual policy in place in most cases, the creator of the material owns it. Pastors travel with their sermons like professors travel with their lectures. If in doubt, just write up a policy statement.

    • Troy Day
      Reply November 12, 2019

      Troy Day

      uhh last century maybe. Does your school submit dissertations to ProQuest – any large and respectable school does THEN you may want to consult a legal firm that specializes in dissertation copyright 🙂 This IRL life experience as a case study https://chroniclevitae.com/news/852-who-controls-your-dissertation

    • James P Bowers
      Reply November 12, 2019

      James P Bowers

      And the piece notes: “In fact, in 2010, when my university required me to submit my dissertation to ProQuest, I had even authorized the company to publish and sell my dissertation through its website.” The writer owns the dissertation unless THEY surrender ownership and control. Your case study subject learned ProQuest had discontinued the practice. My son just completed a dissertation at the University of London. He owns it. They don’t. I supervise dissertation writing. Students own them, we don’t.

    • Troy Day
      Reply November 12, 2019

      Troy Day

      James P Bowers per Berne Convention?

    • James P Bowers
      Reply November 12, 2019

      James P Bowers

      Yes.

  • Neil Steven Lawrence
    Reply November 12, 2019

    Neil Steven Lawrence

    Ultimately God owns them but for temporal discussion …. the minister is the creator through the inspiration of God. If the minister moves locations he could re-preach what God helped him create at a new church. In our society in a court of law I believe the principle of the one who created the work would be seen as the owner. I can see how Minister’s who are more visible like Hagee, Osteen, etc. would want to copyright their material and that is wisdom; but churches or local congregations do not “hire“ minister’s unless of course they are hirelings. For a church congregation or a group of elders to think they could somehow own another person’s creative work, unless it was stipulated in a contract does not compute in my mind. (Side note: Pastors are not the only ministers).

    • Troy Day
      Reply November 12, 2019

      Troy Day

      does GOD collect on royalties from sermons?

  • Troy Day
    Reply November 12, 2019

    Troy Day

    back to OP James P Bowers WHO should own a paid pastor / clergy sermon copyright? If you are software coder all code written belongs to the company you work for Same goes with any standard privacy policy for just about any company out there

    • Neil Steven Lawrence
      Reply November 12, 2019

      Neil Steven Lawrence

      Troy Day A sermon or message is like a book. If you are the author of a book you are the owner. The church congregation receives the benefit of the knowledge and inspiration that a message brings in the moment but they do not own those written words.

    • Troy Day
      Reply November 12, 2019

      Troy Day

      Neil Steven Lawrence if you write an article – as long as a sermon – for a news paper while on the clock do you own the publishing rights or does your employer own them?

    • Neil Steven Lawrence
      Reply November 12, 2019

      Neil Steven Lawrence

      Troy Day The reporter’s contract with the news organization stipulates that the news organization owns the article. Ministers of the word have never operated under a contract where ownership of their messages by the church is stipulated, as far as I have seen.

    • Troy Day
      Reply November 12, 2019

      Troy Day

      Neil Steven Lawrence what does the church contract stipulate on publish materials developed while on the clock at the church? What is the moral and ethical thing

    • James P Bowers
      Reply November 12, 2019

      James P Bowers

      Troy Day , pastors are always on the clock.

    • Neil Steven Lawrence
      Reply November 12, 2019

      Neil Steven Lawrence

      Troy Day The ethical thing is to allow the one who created the artwork to have the rights to it… this applies in all fields. Unless there is a specific contract with the organization that hires that artist the artwork belongs to the artist.

  • Troy Day
    Reply November 12, 2019

    Troy Day

    CLARIFICATION to all readers the copyright in question from OP was meant to refer to PUBLISHING RIGHTS There is a distinct difference that needs to be observed properly

  • James P Bowers
    Reply November 12, 2019

    James P Bowers

    This whole area is new in much of academia having arisen because many schools now “package” courses and want to own professorial content for profit. If you are hired to produce such content, you can be knowingly surrendering your intellectual property. When I led the Church of God seminary to develop an intellectual property policy ten years ago, the law stated that the absence of a specific policy at an institution gives all property rights to the creator. So, it all turns on the presence or absence of a policy as I understand the law. I personally will never surrender control of my lectures or sermons to a third party. I have written courses for pay and given over “shell” features of a course to the institution. I never gave my own research and writing and have sold and been paid to produce a considerable amount. If a professor gets a salary package that compensates for such work, fine. I don’t expect preachers ever will except in some mega churches and most would not give their sermons away. I certainly will not.

    • Troy Day
      Reply November 12, 2019

      Troy Day

      This sounds about right. However is it still valid for PhD students who develop their PhD work while working for the school especially when working with their professor So many recent and classical cases come to mind right the way This is from my PennState

      (1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial
      nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
      (2) the nature of the copyrighted work;
      (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as
      a whole; and
      (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work

    • James P Bowers
      Reply November 12, 2019

      James P Bowers

      Right, schools are generally ahead of students in policy. Better be informed, but students have property rights.

  • James P Bowers
    Reply November 12, 2019

    James P Bowers

    You may find some bizarre arrangement where faculty or institution controls dissertation work, I doubt it. In fact, one motivation for intellectual property policy statements has been to protect student intellectual property. There have been some scandals around this matter. If a project is grant funded and produces a marketable product, things get messier. My daughter, an engineering student, help design a sensory teaching device for disabled students that won 1st place nationally and was grant funded. She and her fellow students were told the patent rights were jointly owned by them and the university. So, those situations get more complicated. Generally, it’s a good idea to have a policy, but this isn’t an area many churches have motivation or reason to pursue.

  • Troy Day
    Reply November 12, 2019

    Troy Day

    James P Bowers bet you the Jabez prayer church Saddleback and many more regret it dearly about now 🙂 the first computer called ABC was never copyrighted in Iowa State and many stole from it Had to be copyrighted later in time in pieces

  • J.D. King
    Reply November 12, 2019

    J.D. King

    Unless a special arrangement is made with the church in a form of writing, everything created “on the clock” related to paid duties is owned by the church. So yes, the church owns the sermons.

  • Troy Day
    Reply November 12, 2019

    Troy Day

    J.D. King This was my initial impression Especially since most active clergy are on a contract with the congregation OR denomination. SO who pays for it and who holds the publishing rights?

    • J.D. King
      Reply November 12, 2019

      J.D. King

      Troy, I’ve been to a StartChurch training seminar. They make it clear that the leader does not own the material created under employment, particularly if they were paid to create it.

    • J.D. King
      Reply November 12, 2019

      J.D. King

      Part of it depends on the language of the employment agreement. If the pastor is specifically paid to write and preach sermons, the material produced is owned by the church.

  • Neil Steven Lawrence
    Reply November 12, 2019

    Neil Steven Lawrence

    Many preachers have assembled their sermons into a book and sold them as a published product with the receipts going to themselves. I’ve never heard of a church doing the same with a preacher’s created material.

  • J.D. King
    Reply November 12, 2019

    J.D. King

  • J.D. King
    Reply November 12, 2019

    J.D. King

  • James P Bowers
    Reply November 12, 2019

    James P Bowers

    Nor I. I know of no church — and I’ve pastored 7 — that own sermons. Check intellectual property laws. And I would never agree to those terms. Regardless of what your friend says.

  • J.D. King
    Reply November 12, 2019

    J.D. King

    If a worship leader is hired and part of their employment agreement is that they write songs, then legally their songs are owned by the church. It is essentially a “work for hire.” If you are hired to write computer code for a game company, the company owns the game that you made. If you are a pastor and you are hired to preach, the message is technically owned by the church.

  • James P Bowers
    Reply November 12, 2019

    James P Bowers

    Most pastors in denominations are not on a contract either. But if you are concerned— and I’m not — just put it in writing: “I own my sermons, period.” The IRS doesn’t have time to police this inane matter.

  • J.D. King
    Reply November 12, 2019

    J.D. King

    Read the blogs that posted above. they actually quote the law. I understand that there are certain systems and protocols that we are all used to, but the question is, “What is the law?”

  • James P Bowers
    Reply November 12, 2019

    James P Bowers

    Well, when we developed an intellectual property policy ten years ago, the “law” relative to intellectual property was that unless there is a stipulation in your work agreement that your creative work is owned by the institution, the default is it is owned by the creator. There is not an assumption that it is owned by the institution. Of course, if the institution calls your writing, sermonizing, or other creative work “work for hire,” then, the creator is set up not to own it. But my understanding was that had to be specified. Many institutions have started to do that very thing. In our case, we separated work that was more generic in nature and work that represented a distinctive expression of a faculty member’s research and writing. To my knowledge, educational institutions have never owned such material. Given the leverage some have now with the job market in education and the advent of packaged materials for online courses that are used over and over — that is happening by the way — I’m sure schools are making it harder for faculty to control what happens to their written work. Most still do not consider faculty research and writing to be owned by the institution although, generally, faculty are expected to do such professional development work as part of their “contract.” I know of no schools that consider student dissertations to be owned by the institution.

  • Troy Day
    Reply November 12, 2019

    Troy Day

    Lets face it J.D. King James P Bowers MOST sermons preached in America any given Sunday are already copyrighted by Sermon Central #justSayin Joe Absher Michael Ellis Carter Jr.

  • James P Bowers
    Reply November 12, 2019

    James P Bowers

    Lol

  • Joe Absher
    Reply November 12, 2019

    Joe Absher

    Ya better get your amen from heaven and your ownership from God

  • Troy Day
    Reply November 12, 2019

    Troy Day

    Some sermons should be on Comedy Central too

  • Joe Absher
    Reply November 13, 2019

    Joe Absher

    Heard an interesting point last week . when someone visits your church they already have 5 pastors . Dr Phil . Wendy . and ministers from various other social media outlets .

  • Troy Day
    Reply November 14, 2019

    Troy Day

    I am still NOT clear after all said and done MAYBE the question should address the sermons of top mega churches later sold for millions which ARE IRS taxable BTW

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