Does Your Company or Church Need an Intellectual Property Policy?

Suppose you’re a pastor on staff at a church. Or a reporter for your hometown newspaper. Or you’re employed by a Christian ministry. Or volunteer at a neighborhood agency. And suppose you spend time writing stuff for your church, employer, ministry, or agency.

When you do, who owns what you write?

Maybe you’ve never had to ask that question; but if you’re a writer, maybe you should. If you and your company or church haven’t already thought through issues of intellectual property, you probably should. The day may come when the ownership of something you write becomes an issue.

Years ago, when I was on staff at a Christian ministry’s magazine, the understanding was that all writing I produced—even if it was after work hours, at home, on my own computer—was the property of the ministry. That may sound extreme, but I never challenged it.

Many years later, after I had written numerous books and articles as a full-time writer, I was asked to take a paid pastoral position on the staff of the fast-growing church my wife and I helped to plant. I accepted and began carefully dividing my time between my ministry as an author and speaker and my ministry as a pastor and preacher. I knew the issue of intellectual property would arise sooner or later, so I asked our church’s leadership team to adopt a policy, not only to clarify matters for me but also for other staff and volunteers. It wasn’t perfect, by any means; but here’s the policy as it was adopted at that time:

[Church Name] policy seeks to encourage creativity while conserving the resources and protecting the interests of the church. Therefore, intellectual property of a scholarly or artistic nature (such as sermons and music) shall be the sole property of the creator unless a specific contract with alternative provisions has been negotiated prior to the creation of the property. However, any works so created within the scope of a staff member’s paid employment may (in their original form) be used, reproduced, and sold by [Church Name] without further compensation to the employee unless a specific contract with alternative provisions is agreed to by both the employee and the church. All such contracts as mentioned in this paragraph must be approved by the [Church Name] Leadership Team.

So, in practical terms, when I wrote a sermon to preach at church, the written words belonged to me; but the recordings of my sermons were the church’s property. The same would apply, say, to a song composed by the worship pastor or a play created by a staff member for the church to perform.

Other churches and businesses tackle the issue differently—for example, making the origination of the intellectual property the determining factor. (That is, if my editor assigns me a story to write, it belongs to the company. But if I take the initiative and write a story and offer it to the company, it belongs to me.)

You may think that it’s no big deal in your situation, and you’d be right—until it is. (Steve Laube knows of a case where a former pastor sued his previous church over this issue.) So, it’s best not to wait until it becomes a big deal. Clarify and codify intellectual-property decisions before they become an issue; and you’ll do yourself and your church, employer, ministry, or agency a valuable service.

For more details, see this helpful article from the Church Law and Tax site:



18 Responses to Does Your Company or Church Need an Intellectual Property Policy?

  1. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser March 6, 2019 at 4:18 am #

    It’s Mine! an’ I wants the rights
    to everything I’s uttered
    an’ I’s a-ready to stand an’ fight
    to keep my bread a-buttered.
    Mebbe they thought I was bein’ nice
    and would let them keep my share
    but we all needs our bowl o’ rice
    so I ain’t playin’ fair.
    I’s lookin’ out for number one
    ‘cos if I don’t, who will?
    An’ they may shout, “You lousy bum”
    whilst I raids the till.
    I figger that it’ll be my net worth
    that’ll impress the guy from Virgin Birth.

    • Bob Hostetler March 6, 2019 at 6:41 am #

      Andrew, nicely done. I plan to make those lines into an ebook and sell it online. I’m finally going to HAVE a net worth!

  2. Roberta Sarver March 6, 2019 at 6:36 am #

    Wow, thanks for nudging us all to think about this important issue. You’re right; it probably wouldn’t occur to most of us. I will copy and file this post.

    • Bob Hostetler March 6, 2019 at 6:43 am #

      As Robert Frost might have said, Roberta, “Clear IP policies are like good fences, and good fences make good neighbors.” Or something like that.

  3. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D March 6, 2019 at 6:42 am #

    Bob, thanks for giving us this information. I am in the process of doing some heavy duty writing for my employer. I can’t imagine wanting the employee manuals at any point in time but you do make some excellent points. Many thanks.

  4. Bob Hostetler March 6, 2019 at 6:47 am #

    Thank you, Sheri.

  5. Damon J. Gray March 6, 2019 at 7:06 am #

    Exactly – It isn’t any big deal … until it is.

    It’s the same with the software I write. If I am writing it on company time at the company desk, it belongs to the company.

  6. Bob Hostetler March 6, 2019 at 7:22 am #

    But Damon, doesn’t the company own you 24/7? 🙂

  7. Cindy Fowell March 6, 2019 at 8:25 am #

    Thankyou for this post. I teach a Sunday School class for adults and use my own outlines, which I have considered using later for blogging. Would this apply?

  8. Ann Clark McFarland March 6, 2019 at 10:14 am #

    This is so good. I’ve been in the audience to a sad case of plagiarism in the church. One pastor, paid to develop his own sermons, took and delivered verbatim the words/message series of another pastor from another state -no credits given at all and both messages viewable online. The plagiarizing pastor delivered it so well. He even used the same hand gestures. He should have gone into acting. In this day and age of technology, I’m not sure why anyone would think that stealing intellectual property of another person would ever remain a secret. It comes out. As Christian creators and the staff who hire them, it is important to declare the boundaries in a pleasant way. If I stole a framer’s tractor from down the road, everyone would protest. Understanding and abiding by good intellectual property boundaries is a mercy to all concerned.

  9. Lora March 6, 2019 at 10:44 am #

    Federal music copyright laws overrrides an agreement like this. Musicians should always copyright their music before it’s ever used so they can obtain royalties if the song is covered by another artist/group and sold (online or on an album) or played on a radio (regular or online streamimg).

  10. Susan LeDoux March 6, 2019 at 12:45 pm #

    Wow! What a helpful blog. Thank you.
    This can be such a confusing issue. Am I correct that a free lance writer would own their intellectual property after publication (unless there is an agreement to the contrary), but if the writer were an employee he/she would not?

  11. Patti March 6, 2019 at 2:36 pm #

    This is so important. Many years ago I was a working playwright, giving many hours of free labor and scripts to my church. I was also a struggling single mom. The pastor offered to pay me to write an original script, complete with music, that followed the Easter theme (to help me out financially). I did, and it was a great success. They took that work, rewrote parts, changed characters etc., and produced it several times for monetary gain without informing or paying me any royalties. The pastor that had hired me put his name on it. I was told it was the property of the church and I had no rights. Legally right or wrong, it broke my trust with churches. My son and I were hungry, and money from my work went into their pockets.

    • Brennan S. McPherson March 6, 2019 at 3:17 pm #

      I’m so sorry that happened to you, Patti! 🙁 Youch. . . So, you weren’t even attributed as the original writer?

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