How a Nonprofit Can Avoid Copyright Infringement When Advertising

Nonprofits don’t have immunity from copyright laws simply because they’re nonprofits, so it’s important to understand how to avoid copyright infringement claims when advertising.

A nonprofit needs to engage in various advertising and marketing activities in order to reach donors and inform the public about events. These activities may involve traditional routes such as running a print advertisement or a commercial on television, as well as online marketing such as material posted on a nonprofit's blog and social media pages.

Advertising the wrong way can lead to claims of copyright infringement. This can occur when your nonprofit uses copyrighted material without first obtaining permission from the copyright holder. Nonprofits don’t have immunity from copyright laws simply because they’re nonprofits, so it’s important to understand how to avoid copyright infringement claims when advertising.

Your nonprofit can run into copyright infringement issues when, for example, it uses a photograph in a print advertisement, when it uses music in a television or radio commercial, or when it posts an article written by someone outside the organization online.

Getting permission from the copyright holder is not impossible, but certainly requires extra time and possibly money. The good news is that many free options are available online. So unless there is a specific image or song your nonprofit wants to use and it's copyrighted, paying a fee isn't always necessary.

The following tips can help your nonprofit avoid copyright infringement lawsuits when advertising and marketing.

Do Not Use Photographs Found on Google Images Without Further Research

While your nonprofit can access any image it wants online, that doesn’t mean the image is free to use. Many organizations turn to Google Images to find photographs to use. However, using an image taken directly from Google Images without checking where it came from is a sure way for your nonprofit to find itself in hot water.

If your nonprofit finds a photograph on Google Images that it likes, it will need to find the original image in order to license it. Click on the photograph to see whether it links to the page of the photographer or artist, or to a licensing company like Shutterstock. Once on the page, follow the directions to license the image and ensure your nonprofit is using the image legally.

Do Not Use Songs From a Personal Music Collection

If your nonprofit is putting a television or radio commercial together, or an online video, then it probably wants music in it. You may be tempted to have a board member, volunteer, staff member, or other person provide a song for the commercial from their personal collection, but doing this is a violation of the musician’s copyright on the song.

Because your nonprofit is a business, it needs a business license to use someone's song in a commercial, and people with a personal collection of CDs or downloaded music have only a license to use that music personally. If your nonprofit doesn’t obtain the correct license for the song, it may end up with a copyright infringement claim from the musician.

Find Free Material in the Public Domain

When the copyright on photographs and songs expire, the material goes to the public domain, which means it becomes free for anyone to use. Your nonprofit can find public domain material online by searching for public domain music or images. The public domain is limited though, so your nonprofit may not be able to find the exact song or image it needs.

License Images and Songs

Companies such as Shutterstock have large libraries of images and songs that can be licensed and used for various purposes. Some of the material is free, some has a fee associated with it, and some can only be accessed with a monthly subscription. Each image and song has limitations on how it can be used, so be sure to review those limitations before using the material. For example, some material can only be used for personal use, rather than business. Your nonprofit will want to make sure that the image or song it chooses can be used for business purposes.

Work With a Local Photographer or Musician

There are many photographers and musicians in your nonprofit’s community who would love to do work for a nonprofit. While there may be a fee associated with the photograph or song, your nonprofit could negotiate a reduced fee, or even commission the work for free in exchange for publicity for the artist.

If your nonprofit decides to commission a photograph or song, be sure to use a contract that discusses who owns the finished material, what the material can be used for, and what the payment is.

Protect Your Nonprofit From Liability by Using Contracts

If your nonprofit is using an advertising agency, it’s important to have a contract in place. The contract should state that no unlicensed material is to be used in the advertisement, and that the advertising agency, not your nonprofit, is responsible for any legal fallout. These types of contracts can be complicated, so be sure to use an attorney to draft one.

Have an Attorney Review the Advertisement

Your nonprofit may want to run an advertisement or marketing campaign by an attorney. This can be expensive, but it’s important, especially if running a large campaign. An attorney can advise your nonprofit whether the campaign has copyright infringement risks, can help obtain permission to use copyrighted material, and can draft necessary contracts.

Advertising and marketing activities allow your nonprofit to reach donors and keep the public informed about events. Keeping these tips in mind can help your nonprofit broaden its reach while avoiding potential copyright infringement claims.

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