Nonprofit Copyrights

Board Café

Nonprofit Copyrights


  November 28, 2007
With 44,000 subscribers, we at the Board Café get quite a bit of mail, and we wish we could respond to all of it. Even if we haven't written back, please know that all letters help us think about future issues. Dearest readers: nonprofit board members are unseen heroes, meeting in small groups on third Tuesdays and second Wednesdays, working hard and often taking a lot of grief, to keep our communities cohesive and creating social change. Thank you for letting us work with you. – Jan Masaoka, Chef/Editor
This month's tidbits
Reader comment on last month's Board Café

Dear Board Café: I recently resigned from a nonprofit board after eight months of attempting to offer new ideas to the ED and proposed revamping of financial support, with little to no positive response, until finally coming to the conclusion that I was wasting my time and that resignation was the best course of action. The sad part of my story is that there were only two board members left … the others had resigned just prior to my arrival but I wasn't aware of that at the time. Your article has caused me to rethink my decision to resign. Should the other board member and I have fired this ED? Did we have a right to do that?

Dear Reader: It's always hard to look back a decision and know if it was the right one. In any event, a board always has the "right" to let its executive director go if it feels that the ED is an obstacle to the organization's work. After all, the board is responsible for holding its staff accountable to its mission and constituencies. Next time perhaps you and the other board member might discuss the issue and talk with some of those who had left, and considered a number of options. All of these experiences make us better board members and better people in the end. At least I hope so! Thanks for writing. – Jan

Wine Tasting

If your board meetings are something like 4 pm - 6 pm, consider having a light dinner brought in occasionally with a wine tasting. Ask four board members to bring one bottle of the same wine—say, Merlot—and have rating sheets to pass around.

This month’s main course article

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

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.

Kate Spelman is an attorney at Cobalt LLP in Berkeley, California, 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 and loves used bookstores and fly-fishing. She can be reached at

Related articles archived at

Next month in the Board Café: The Twelve Board Café Days of Christmas

The Board Café Emporium

Great Boards for Small Groups: A 1-Hour guide to Governing A Growing Nonprofit, by Andy Robinson. Available at or

Nonprofit Genie. Get a free, excellent series of Frequently Asked Questions and answers about fundraising, written by the legendary fundraiser Kim Klein., then click on "FAQs", then on "Fundraising." Nonprofit organizations above a certain size are required to submit Form 990 to the IRS each year. You can see your organization's 990, as well as the 990s of others, at

Strategic Planning for Nonprofit Orgs, A Practical Guide & Workbook, 2nd edition, by Mike Allison & Jude Kaye. This guide can be adapted to fit any timeframe and is filled with real-world insights, planning tips, and useful pointers. Available at

Boards That Love Fundraising: A How To Guide for Your Board, by Robert Zimmerman and Ann Lehman. Available at for $29.00 plus shipping + handling.

Planet 501c3, by Miriam Engelberg. The cartoon strip for nonprofits. Free at


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