Video clips: Fair use or not fair use?
This last week a debate broke out on the Worship Multimedia Exchange site. The debate centered on the legality of churches playing video clips as sermon illustrations. There were some ancillary debates, but this was the main issue. Of course, these debates have come and gone before – nothing new there – but I was reminded again of how apparently ambiguous the copyright laws are on this specific subject.
I don’t have a personal opinion on the matter, mostly because after looking at both sides of the issue through research and conversations, I don’t believe that this matter is actually settled. Those on each side of the argument point to various laws and examples to promote their viewpoint. In this debate, both sides asked the other side for tort case history to back up their claims. Neither side did.
So here’s the problem: until a real case goes to court, the law can mean just about anything. Since judges can interpret a law in just about any way, we really can’t know how the law will be treated in such a case. And even if a church goes to court and wins, this doesn’t mean that the next church that goes to court over the same matter will automatically win its case – especially if the second church is in a different state than the first. Furthermore, because judges can rule laws unconstitutional, what seems to be a law might not be a law at all. Frustratingly, until the Supreme Court rules on this specific issue, we cannot really know which viewpoint is the correct one. Now, if there are actual tort cases about this specific issue (that is, a church being sued because it was using video clips as sermon illustrations), I’d like to know about them. I’m guessing there are none.
Until then, churches must decide which way to go. There is one way, however, to remove the ambiguity of the law, and that is to get licenses (like CVLI and others) or explicit written permission from movie publishers. While this ultimately may be unnecessary, at least your church will have a clear understanding of what rights it has for the specific movie clips it wants to use, regardless of how the copyright laws are ultimately interpreted.
This is my personal opinion. R-Technics has made no official position public regarding this issue. We do work with a couple of skilled IP attorneys. If they think it wise for R-Technics to make an official public statement, I’ll let you know.