Cover Songs and Why They’re OK In Church—If They’re "Religious"

Cover songs. Cover bands. YouTube covers. Etc. So what are we talking about here? What’s a cover?

Music terminology these days includes two kinds of songs: originals and covers. Originals are songs that you wrote. Covers are songs that you perform, but someone else wrote.

In popular music, a cover version or cover song, or simply cover, is a new performance or recording of a previously recorded, commercially released song by someone other than the original artist or composer. (Wikipedia)

Then there’s this obscure-sounding thing called “copyright” that’s somehow in the middle of it all.

So, what’s the deal with copyright? Most people would agree that the concept is fair and right. The U.S. Copyright Law protects created works (like songs, recordings and videos) by providing six exclusive rights to their owners. That means no one but the copyright owner has the right to do any of those six activities without permission. (Other national laws work similarly, though not identically — expect differences!)

The six exclusive rights in the U.S. are:

  1. Reproduction: simply put, “copying” lyrics, tunes or melodies, digitally or on paper
  2. Adaptation: changing it into something new, a derivative work
  3. Distribution: making it available through channels for sale, lease, or lending
  4. Performance: presenting the work to a public audience
  5. Display: showing the graphics or visuals related to a work
  6. Recording: playing back or sharing a recording of the work

Yes, odd as it seems, especially in this YouTube era, performance is an exclusive right of a copyright owner. If you write a song, the law says that no one but you has the right to perform that song — to pick up a video recorder and a guitar and give it a go and then post it to their channel — until they somehow get your permission.

So is covering a song “legal”? Well, it depends on a lot of different things. For the limited purposes of this article, let’s just think of “performance” as actually playing a song live in front of an audience. (The law defines “performance” to also include playing recorded music and videos, but we’ll address some of those issues in a follow-up article. And creating YouTube cover videos stirs up even more issues.)

In typical performance venues, like theaters, auditoriums, stadiums, concert halls, restaurants and night clubs, the venue is responsible for securing a “performance license” from Performing Rights Societies like ASCAP, BMI and SESAC—all of whom who have reached agreements with songwriters and publishers to represent their performance rights.

Church is different, because there is a performance exemption actually written into the Federal Copyright Law for church services. Section 110(3) states that the following are not infringements of copyright:

performance of a nondramatic literary or musical work or of a dramatico-musical work of a religious nature, or display of a work, in the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly

Interesting. So to cover a song in church without permission and still be legal, it has to be a song “of a religious nature” performed “in the course of services.” OK, seems straightforward enough. Except it’s not. (Keep reading below…)

Click on the image to read our earlier Worshipfuel article on some great worship song covers: “Worship and Wine Skins”

So What Does “Religious” Really Mean?

No one would likely question the “religious nature” of most hymns or worship songs sung in churches today. But there will undoubtedly be questions along the fringe.

All I can say is, you now know what the law says. And you probably remember the song made famous by Jiminy Cricket. “…Always let your conscience be your guide”.

Since I brought it up –could that be a song “of a religious nature”? Hmmm. Let the rationalizations begin.

Read part Part Two on this topic: “Exceptions to the Exemption

As a songwriter, worship leader and a member of the marketing team, Paul is connected to CCLI in every possible way. Paul serves as CCLI’s Content Creator in the U.S. Service Center in Vancouver, Washington. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications from George Fox University and has served as a marketing/communications specialist and a worship leader for a number of churches and ministries.


  1. Can a song like Cohen’s Hallelujah be used with different words in a church service without permission if that service will be seen on YouTube?

    • Thanks for asking Diane. “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen is a registered song in our database and covered by our CCLI Copyright License, however, changing the lyrics to ANY song can only legally be done with the song owner’s permission and is an activity that is NOT covered by our license. This applies whether or not you record the service.


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