Most of churches have done very little to copyright or trademark their marketing (aka evangelism) symbols. During the pandemic of 2020, with the rise of fully on-line services, copyright and trademarking of a church or pastor’s online persona might have been expected. Few seem to have done so. To do either correctly requires engagement of a qualified attorney. Most church materials are not strictly of commercial value. Such materials have a short “shelf life” and are easily duplicated in forms that do not violate copyrights or trademarks. By the time most churches consider copyrights or trademarks, it is too late for a host of reasons to obtain an enforceable right, usually because the church has spread its materials far and wide without protection and tolerated even close “copycats” much less remotely similar ones.
In Aquarian Foundation v Lowndes, Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, Slip Op. (WD Wash. 2022), the federal trial court in a bench trial concluded the claim of the church to protect its copyright and trademark was not enforceable against the Defendant. The church founder copyrighted his own material and owned the copyright. The copyright was of his teaching materials and was transferred in his Will to the church. Many years before his death, the founder gave a written license for use of the materials to the Defendant. The church revoked the license long after the Defendant posted the materials online and used the trademarked name for many years. In order to revoke the license, the church had to give two years notice but attempted to make the revocation immediate. At trial the church could not prove loss of revenue from the alleged infringements. At trial the church tried to present testimony of a handwriting expert to prove the license given to Defendant was a forgery. However, the methodology used by the expert, use of exemplars that could not be proven to be authentic, was rejected by the Court.
Copyrighting and trademarking intellectual property is not easily done. Infringement enforcement may take years and may be subject to setoffs and adjustments. See e.g., Bright Tunes Music Corp. v Harrisongs Music, Ltd., 420 F. Supp. 177 (S.D.N.Y.1976) (“My Sweet Lord,” George Harrison, former Beatle); ABKCO Music, Inc. v Harrisongs Music, 508 F. Supp. 798 (SDNY 1981) (“$587,000” after adjustments). Church intellectual property has a very limited shelf life and is easily replicated without obvious duplication. Much church intellectual property is fair game for “fair use.” 17 USC §107.