Nonprofits, Volunteers, and Copyright: Clarifying Ownership and Usage Rights

As any nonprofit leader knows, volunteers serve vitally important functions in many nonprofit organizations.  What happens when volunteers create original works for their organizations?  Generally speaking, the volunteers will own the works absent any specific agreements otherwise, and whether the volunteers or the organizations realize it or not.  Nonprofits therefore should take proactive steps regarding copyright issues, such as through ownership and licensing agreements.  These measures may become especially important if the created works later become financially valuable, if disputes arise regarding the work, or if the nonprofit wants to transfer or alter the work. 

Top Ten Legal Resolutions for Nonprofit Leaders in 2016

With the new year upon us, our hope is that all of our nonprofit clients will thrive in 2016, fulfilling their organizational mission and impacting their communities.  As attorneys, we understand the importance of legal compliance for an organization’s mission, governance, and success.  The following is a list of ten critical legal areas that may impact nonprofit organizations in 2016.  Resolve to address them throughout the year, especially any deficiencies that warrant further action.

1.         Develop nonprofit website privacy and cybersecurity protections and policiesNonprofits regularly gather personal information from people who visit their organizational websites.  A major legal development in the last few years is the need for many nonprofit organizations to implement a privacy policy or user agreement for their websites.  The policies should establish protocols for collection, use, and storage of website users’ private information. They should also provide appropriate disclosures to users, such as analytics information, cookies, security measures such as encryption, and how organizations may share data.  Significantly, nonprofits that permit financial transactions on their sites, such as receiving donor contributions should ensure their payment systems are PCI DSS compliant.  These are emerging but important areas as internet traffic increases along with corresponding privacy concerns. 

2.         Use Social Media Well.  Social media is a powerful tool for many nonprofits.  Continual improvements can help promote an organization’s mission and nurture its good reputation.  Unfortunately, many nonprofits fail to take the time to understand how copyright and trademark laws govern their use of photos, videos, or other media in their posts.  In using social media, nonprofits need to teach their workers how to identify and comply with applicable copyright or trademark restrictions, for which a license or other protection may be needed.  Nonprofits should also consider individual privacy interests related to posts and obtain consents or provide other disclosures as warranted prior to posting information about beneficiaries, donors, or others.  Finally, nonprofits should take steps to protect their reputations by developing a procedure or policy that ensures employees and volunteers refrain from using the organization’s social media for disparaging comments or to express views contrary to the mission. 

A Nonprofit’s Guide to Copyright Law for Derivative Works

 The right to create separately owned derivative works is an important yet often misunderstood area of copyright law.   More specifically, issues of derivative work ownership and authorized usage may arise anytime a copyright owner permits someone else to modify a preexisting copyrighted work.  A common nonprofit example occurs when an organization authorizes an affiliate or joint-venture party to improve and adapt copyrighted program materials for use in specific situations, such as a curriculum, other educational materials, or advocacy information.  Issues also may arise when a nonprofit


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