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Pass the popcorn, not a lawsuit

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Whether you've realized it or not, you've likely encountered and possibly committed copyright law infringements. Either of these scenarios sound familiar?


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  • You’ve found the perfect way to illustrate your sermon or Sunday school lesson. It’s a short clip from a movie you own on DVD or can access from an on-demand service subscription.
  • Your church is hosting a series of movie nights for youth during the summer. You plan to show donated DVDs and/or use online streaming services.

While it’s easy to fast forward through the usual FBI warning against piracy, playing (“performing” in movie-speak) a film publicly without proper licensing is not only unethical but risks a fine of $150,000 per infraction and possibly even jail time.

Thou shalt not steal

You wouldn’t steal a DVD from Target, claiming that It’s for ministry. Nor would you expect others to accept that as a justifiable excuse for your crime. Since the advent of easy digital access and duplication, wholesale infringement of the copyright laws protecting creators’ intellectual property like films has skyrocketed. Surprisingly, citing limited budgets and busy schedules, some church leaders have been known to adopt an elastic scale of ethics when it comes to copyright.

“We’re a small rural church — a nonprofit — far from Hollywood or FBI enforcers,” some may think. 

Regardless of your location, or distance from FBI headquarters, being a church does not excuse you from obeying laws. Nonprofit status isn't a license to use these materials for public consumption.

Critics attack studios worth billions and privileged actors for being greedy. However, without protections in place, it’s as if everyone — from the low-paid craft services staff to the millionaire studio executive — is working without pay, and that’s not right. 

As churches, we must model the principles we believe through practice. (If we don’t, who will?!) The law is clear: Any content intended for personal, private use requires a license when shown to the public — and even if it is an invitation only-event or a gathering of youth in the parsonage, the law considers a church-hosted gathering “public.”

CVLI to the rescue

We get it. 

You dread one more form to complete or membership to keep current. Fortunately, the process of getting and maintaining the appropriate video license is simple and affordable. 

The annual Christian Video Licensing’s Church Video License (CVLI) will cover most needs of churches. CVLI makes it legal for your church to show a clip in a sermon or class, play a movie after youth group or watch a film on the church bus on the way to camp. 

Start by visiting the CVLI website and clicking “Order/Pay Now” at the top right.

The fee is based on church size, starting at $250 per year or as low as $90 for a seven-day special event. Either way, the price per person is a far cry from the average $9 movie ticket...or a lawsuit.

The best part of the CVLI license is that it covers unlimited viewings in full or in part. Plus, the huge catalog includes classics and recent blockbusters. It also provides free access to the ScreenVue Vault, where you can search for films by theme or topic to identify options that fit your need.

Movies not found in ScreenVue are often still covered by CVLI. Here’s how to learn the status of a film not found in ScreenVue:

  1. Locate the movie on the Internet Movie Database: Go to and search by title. 

  2. Find the distributor: On the movie’s IMDb page, scroll down to “Company Credits,” click “see more” and locate the distributor with “(USA) (Theatrical)” or  “(World-wide) (theatrical).”  

  3. Check to see if it’s part of the CVLI: Once you know the U.S. distributor, check whether the company is included in the CVLI licensing group. With more than 740 affiliated film distributors, chances are CVLI covers it.

When you need more than the CVLI

When it comes to showing films at special events or movie-themed programs, licensing becomes more complicated. Your answers to the following questions could affect your coverage. 

  • Are you selling tickets to the movie? If you’re charging admission to see the film, that’s beyond CVLI coverage. Ways to get the permission or additional license you need are outlined below.

  • Are you showing the movie outside? Outdoor viewing is generally off limits, but there are limited exceptions. Best advice: Call CVLI to inquire about an event-specific license.

  • Will you advertise your event or program using the movie title, images or associated character names? If the event is about a specific movie and you use any of the above in promotions, you’ll need a special license from CVLI. If you show a full film or a short clip during a regularly scheduled event, the standard CVLI license is sufficient. The CVLI support team stands ready to answer any questions or provide guidance. 

  • Is an outside group showing a movie in your building? CVLI covers your church and your events. Outside groups renting your facility aren’t covered. However, if they show movies in your building without a license, you’re liable. Make sure any movie shown in your facility is licensed appropriately.

Again, if you’re unsure about any specifics, call CVLI. They want to keep you legal.

When your event is not covered by CVLI

You’ve planned an outdoor movie watch party as outreach to your community and now realize it’s not covered by your license. Don’t worry. There’s a simple way to secure what you need quickly and inexpensively. 

Most distributors use a single company to handle non-theatrical licensing. Swank Motion Pictures, Inc. makes the process of obtaining a license simple and cost effective. They have a department devoted to licensing for religious institutions that’s familiar with specific needs and the CVLI license most churches have.

To request a license, visit Swank’s religious organizations site. Then find your title and request a quote. Expect to receive a response within hours, or opt for immediate phone support. 

This license includes a mailed Blu-ray disc that you can play (even outdoors) and permission to use movie titles and images in your promotions. To use any of the few movies not managed by Swank, you must contact the distributors directly.  

Make a lasting impression

Adding a movie clip to your sermon or lesson can provide a memorable and vivid illustration for attendees of all ages, but especially for youth. Doing that legally is simpler than you might have thought. License through CVLI or Swank and put the experts in your corner. It’s the right — and legal — thing to do.


Jeremy Steele

Jeremy Steele is the teaching pastor at Christ UMC in Mobile, Alabama, as well as a writer and speaker. You can find a list of all his books, articles and resources for churches, including his most recent book All the Best Questions, at his website:

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