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Copyright and church music

By Lara Pickford-Gordon

Copyright is a property right and takes effect from the moment of creation.

David Bereaux emphasised this point as he addressed the Liturgical Commission’s workshop ‘Composing Responsorial Psalms’ on Thursday, March 30 at the Max Murphy Hall, St Philip and St James RC Church, Chaguanas.

Using the example of the person who crafted ‘Hard Mass’ by changing the lyrics to Ian ‘Bunji Garlin’ Alvarez’ 2023 popular Soca song ‘Hard Fete’, Bereaux said, “These things, while they can be nice, a certain level of creativity, but it is adaption, it is transformation of an original work and this should not happen without the prerequisite permissions.”

Bereaux, an employee of the Copyright Music Organisation of Trinidad and Tobago (COTT) was the featured speaker on the topic ‘Copyright and Performing Rights’.

Copyright cannot be taken for granted and persons cannot take a song they frequently hear and “do what you want with it”. Bereaux added, “it doh go so, and you must respect the rights of creators and desist from that kind of activity.” He cited the Copyright Act, 5. (1): Copyright is a property right which subsists in literary and artistic works that are original intellectual creations in the literary and artistic domain.

Bereaux listed other things that can have copyright including books, pamphlets, articles, computer programs, dramatic works, audio visual works, photographic works, maps, sketches, architecture.

“The law also provides that it (copyright) exists from the moment of creation,” he said. This is contrary to the notion that someone has to visit a place to get protection for their creations. What had to be proven was that the work exists “under your hand as of a particular date”.

Bereaux said: “What we usually tell people to do is to use the poor man copyright method, which is, put your creation in an envelope, seal that envelope and register mail it to yourself.”

The envelope will bear the date stamped by the post office. It will not be opened but put in a safe place until the need arises to prove copyright.

Copyright can also cover translations, adaptations, arrangements, and other modifications of works. The creator of copyrighted material has the exclusive right to authorise or stop the use of their work. Bereaux stressed that anyone who wants to reproduce, adapt, perform, or broadcast someone’s work, must get permission.

There are exemptions for news and public information, teaching, education, and archiving. Personal use is also included but not in quantities “prejudicial” to the copyright owner.

Bereaux, however, said there are no exemptions for music being used in church and permission from owners of copyright is required. He disclosed that the Church gets around this through the transfer of rights.

“Once you are a composer and your work makes it into the hymnal etc. there is a document that is signed so it can be used for purposes of worship. But in terms of the rule of law there are no exemptions. The Church owns the rights to the songs they use.”

Bereaux clarified that the use of the songs in church creates, “public performance of that music”. This is music performed outside of one’s domestic circle—within the home with family or friends or in one’s private car.

The question may be asked about handling of copyright with the numerous songs played at various venues.

Party, concert promoters and businesses must obtain licences to have music performed at their premises or events. “The difficulties of having many songs and going to each composer or rights owners is why collective management organisations (CMO) such as COTT was formed.”

Reciprocal agreements with foreign CMO’s enables reciprocal representation.  “So, I will licence your music here in Trinidad and Tobago on your behalf if you will do the same for me in your territory,” Bereaux said.

COTT has reciprocal agreements with CMOs in the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Denmark, Germany. He added: “When our repertoire is played there, the money comes to our rights holders; when their music is played here and we administer those rights, we send that money to them.”

During the Q and A Bereaux was asked about songs from foreign composers who have not signed rights for use of their works over to the Church. He responded that if the requisite permissions were not obtained then there would be an infringement of copyright.

To another question he responded that the use of songs during streamed Masses can have “serious copyright implications” when the ownership is not local. Live streaming creates a public performance.

“You need to know what songs you are using and whom you should approach for the requisite licence.”