Something to Consider…

We recently asked church leaders about the following situation:

Your volunteer VBS Director is so excited about all the cute kids who showed up for VBS this year that she’s taken some pictures and posted them on her Facebook page. She now asks you to add them to the church’s website.

Are her pictures a problem?

Pictures seem to be everywhere these days. They are not just limited to TV and magazines; one can find them on websites, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest just to name a few. And the list continues to grow because digital photography and videography have contributed to new ways of displaying images that no one could have imagined even a year ago! To church leaders wanting to share the great things that are happening at their churches, the options available to them seem almost endless.

But before that cute VBS picture is added to the church's website or the video of that great praise team performance is posted on YouTube, what should church leaders be aware of?

There are two issues involved when it comes to pictures and video. The first one is ownership of intellectual property and the second is right to privacy. Let’s briefly examine ownership first.

Who Owns That Picture?

When someone is taking pictures or shooting video on their own, generally they can claim the copyright or ownership of those images or video. They may even go so far as register the copyright to their work with the U.S. Copyright Office in their own name. However, if they are a paid employee of the church and take pictures or shoot video while they are working for the church—the church owns their work and the copyright to it. This is because it is considered a work made for hire. (And yes, this applies to other intellectual property such as Sunday School lessons and sermons, too.)

But if a volunteer takes pictures for the church and nothing is in writing to the contrary, they own the images. What can the church do? You’ve got two options. First ask the volunteer to sign an agreement that states that all images he or she creates while volunteering for the church belong to the church and that they forever give up all claims to those images. However, this means that your volunteer won’t be able to use the images they created for the church for their own personal scrapbook or album unless that is allowed for in the agreement. The reason a church might want to go this route is that such an agreement gives the church complete control over how the pictures are used and prevents the person who created them from objecting or asking for payment.

A second, less severe option, is for the volunteer who created the images or video to submit a document to the church giving the church irrevocable, unlimited use of the images or video in perpetuity. That way the volunteer retains ownership of their work and the church can use the pictures however they wish. There is a downside to this option, however. The volunteer can still use the pictures in some way that may not reflect well on the church. Which option you choose largely depends on what level of risk you're comfortable with.

The Right to Privacy

As we mentioned earlier there is a second issue regarding your church using pictures and videos, the right to privacy. Individuals have a right to be left alone and a right to privacy. Generally if they appear in a photograph or a video their consent must be given before it can be published or broadcast. The only exception is when an image they appear in can be considered news. That’s why news outlets often can publish or broadcast photographs or video without having the people appearing in them sign releases.

But when a church uses images or video, whether it is in a newsletter, on a website, or its Facebook page, those images are extremely unlikely to be considered news. Instead they are considered being used for commercial purposes. If a church publishes a photo of a cute kid on its Facebook page and hasn’t gotten the child’s parent to sign a photo release, it is opening itself up to an invasion of privacy claim from the parents. Or it could be even worse if the child happens to be a foster child that has been placed in a home by a government agency! Then you are dealing with a NO PICTURES ALLOWED situation with a great deal of legal weight behind it.

Quite likely if the child pictured is part of a family who are church members, that won’t be a problem. But why temp fate? As a church leader one of your responsibilities is to protect the church. Posting that picture on Facebook may promote the church, but without a signed release, it isn’t protecting the church. If that child’s family becomes disillusioned with your church, anything could happen.

But suppose that the volunteer VBS Director not only didn’t get photo releases signed by the parents of the children appearing in the pictures he or she took, but nothing was signed turning over ownership of the images over to the church. Does the church still need to be concerned? Yes, because he or she was serving as an agent of the church. The church’s exposure is not lessened. Plus the VBS Director could also be personably liable for invasion of privacy.

When Others Post Pictures Online

Now, what if someone who is not serving as a volunteer of the church happens to take pictures of children at your church with their cell phone? First off please understand that someone can pretty much take pictures whenever and wherever they want in the United States. While there are a few national security sites where photography is prohibited, unless you have posted signs saying that photography and video are prohibited, your church isn’t on that list. The act of taking pictures or shooting video rarely becomes a problem. It’s when and how they are used that problems arise.

So, what if the non-volunteer posts the pictures that they took at your church on their personal Facebook page? Unlike church volunteers, they are not an agent of the church, and they own their images. As a result, the church has no legal say in how the pictures can be used. If the children’s parents have a problem with their kids being on someone’s Facebook page, you can recommend that they resolve the problem by applying the strategy that Jesus outlined in Matthew 18:15.

Some churches love their children so much that they never use pictures of them on their website or Facebook pages. This is out of concern that pedophiles might be attracted to their church. Instead, they get a license to use of pictures of smiling children and adults from a royalty-free stock picture agency. An Internet search will result in several firms that provide such images at no to low cost.

With just a few precautions church leaders can safely share pictures and videos of all the exciting things happening at their churches. What better way to share the good news of Christ than a picture or video of a joy-filled believer.

Please Note: This information is provided with the understanding that Church Administrative Professionals is not rendering professional advice or service.

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Deborah Miller, cca

Charles Kneyse

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