Board Cafe: Nonprofit Copyrights

Board Cafe

What do I as a board member need to know about copyrights?

A Q&A with Kate Spelman

There are two things to worry about: protecting original material that your organization has created, and making sure that your organization isn't improperly using material that someone else owns.
The Board Café asked copyright attorney Kate Spelman to help us with these issues, and she generously gave all of us her expertise and time.

Q: Should we be copyrighting things we publish in print, on our website, in our music CDs and elsewhere? Is it enough to put © on things?
A: It's a good idea to put the © symbol (a c in a circle) 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 for the official site.

Q: Is it hard to register a work?
A: 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; and consists of answering nine questions; three of which are your address!

Q: What's the most common copyright question that arises for nonprofits?
A: A frequent problem is who owns a work: is it the nonprofit? The staffperson 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.

Q: What should our organization be doing about this?
A: 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.

Q: What steps should the board take to make sure that our organization respects the copyrights of others?
A: 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 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.

Q: Is there a good place on the internet where I can download sample copyright forms and other documents?
A: Unfortunately, no but have a look at for a good place to start.

Q: How would you sum this all up?
A: 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.

Original publication date: 11/27/2007

© 2007 CompassPoint Nonprofit Services