Who Owns My Sermons?


Q: Who owns my sermons?

Pastor Bob of Faith Church took a 13-message series he preached at First Church and turned it into a book. Pastor Bob signed a book deal with a Christian publisher, and sales have gone through the roof. However, a board member at First Church now asserts that the book royalties are the property of the church. Who owns Pastor Bob’s sermons and the book that resulted from them.

A: Well, this question gets a lawyer’s answer of, “It depends.”

On the one hand, the argument is that Faith Church owns the sermons because Pastor Bob completes sermons for the church as “work for hire.” Therefore, the sermons are the property of Faith Church.

However, there are arguments against this analysis. For example, it is likely that Pastor Bob is not an employee of the church for tax purposes—rather, he is likely self-employed, responsible to withhold his own taxes and pay self-employment tax. This analysis aligns the pastor’s sermons with photographs taken by a wedding photographer. The couple has the right to display and use the photos they purchase, but the artistic and intellectual property rights still remain with the photographer. That’s why Walgreen’s won’t copy a photo with the photographer’s name stamped on it. The photographer still has rights to it.

In the same way, it is traditionally understood that professors own the intellectual property rights to materials they prepare for classroom use, even though they have been hired by the university to complete those very lectures. The “teacher exemption” to the work for hire rule allows professors to own and publish their own lectures in book or video form. In this argument, pastors are analogous to professors in that they prepare materials to be presented, which may be altered and re-presented at other locations that may have minimal financial value in their original form to the employer.

So, why is “it depends” the answer?

Three reasons.

First, this issue has not been heavily litigated. So, the answer depends on future rulings of various courts.

Second, absent those rulings and with the application of the work for hire analysis, the answer depends on when and where the sermons were crafted. If Pastor Bob wrote the book on his own time, away from the church, and with his own materials, then turned the book into sermons for the church, the material is his own. There is no argument that the book is the property of the church. However, if he writes the sermons first, at church, with church materials, the argument can be made that the church owns the sermons and the book.

Third, the answer depends on whether Pastor Bob and Faith Church have a Creative License Agreement. If the church and Pastor Bob have an agreement, then the answer is determined by that agreement.

So, it could be the Pastor Bob owns the sermons if a court agrees the sermons are analogous to lectures. Or, it could be that the church owns them if the court determines they were completed as work for hire.

So, how do you eliminate all of this if . . . then scenarios?

Get Your Free Creative License Agreement

Pastor Bob and Faith Church can execute a Creative License Agreement. That document will determine who owns the sermons. To request a free copy of a Creative License Agreement that maintains ownership of intellectual property with the pastor, please shoot Grant Reynolds an email at Grant@ReynoldsLawGroup.net or give us a call at 757-219-2500.