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Nonprofits and Copyrights: What You Need to Know
Kate Spelman, attorney, Cobalt LLP
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Original Content2/23/2010

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: This article shares ideas behind copyright as it relates to nonprofit industry. It is reprinted with permission from Blue Avocado, a practical fast-read magazine for community nonprofits. Subscribe free by sending an email to editor@blueavocado.org or at blueavocado.org.
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There are two things to worry about with copyrights: protecting original material that your organization has created, and making sure that your organization isn't improperly using material that someone else owns. Blue Avocado asked copyright attorney Kate Spelman to help with these issues, and she generously gave all her expertise and time.

Q: Should we be copyrighting things we publish in print, on our web site, in our music CD and elsewhere? Is it enough to put a © (copyright symbol) on things?
Kate: It's a good idea to put the © symbol on original materials, along with the year and the copyright owner. But a copyright can't be enforced unless the work has been registered. See the U.S. Copyright Office at copyright.gov for the official site.

Is it hard to register a work?
Not really. Works can be registered at the United States Copyright Office for $45 each, and the benefits include having facts asserted in the application taken as true by a court, and the ability to ask for attorneys' fees and statutory damages. The filing of a copyright application is intended to be done by citizens, not lawyers. It is a straightforward set of questions to answer and you can do it online.

What's the most common copyright question that arises for nonprofits?
A frequent problem is who owns a work. Is it the nonprofit? The staff person who wrote it on the job? A volunteer? This usually doesn't become an issue until there is financial success. But photographers, writers, authors, musicians, artists, and others may create work where the question will arise. Sometimes, for example, a volunteer will write something for an organization that turns into a book that the author wants to sell.

What should our organization be doing about this?
It's best to establish who will own the copyright at the very beginning — of the volunteer's work or of the employee's project.

What steps should the board take to make sure that our organization respects the copyrights of others?
Make sure the staff knows that it's important to the board both to respect the rights of others and to protect the organization's work. If your organization publishes frequently, adopt a policy that requires an agreement on copyright to be signed by employees, contractors, and volunteers in advance of work done and that requires a report to the board before any agreement is signed that gives those rights to others. When you look at work produced by your organization — whether written, musical, photographed, drawn, programmed or translated — check to see that the copyright mark is present, and if the work is a major one, ask if it has been registered. When you see something reprinted in your organization's newsletter, ask to be sure that permission was appropriately granted.

Is there a good place on the Internet where I can download sample copyright forms and other documents?
Unfortunately, no. But have a look at copyright.gov for a good place to start.

What is Creative Commons?
Creative Commons is an approach to allow limited, noncommercial copying and distribution. A common dilemma for nonprofits — especially those that publish online — is the desire to have materials used and disseminated as widely as possible combined with the need to protect original content. Creative Commons is an internationally recognized nonprofit that has developed an approach and accompanying free tools for granting various "some rights reserved" licenses. For example, a work can be licensed to users provided that it is used for noncommercial purposes, is attributed to the author, and is not modified. Creative Commons licenses have been welcomed by our firm and by much of the intellectual property legal community.

How would you sum this all up?
A proactive version of the "golden rule" applies to copyright: get permission and be clear in advance of who owns what, and give credit generously, as you would have others do unto you.
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About the Author: Kate Spelman is an attorney at Cobalt LLP in Berkeley, CA, with a national and international practice in copyright law. She has worked for Fortune 500 companies, as well as many nonprofits. She is a board member of the American Intellectual Property Law Education Foundation.
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