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Nonprofits and Illegal Downloads: Penalties and Legal Advice

Copyright Law is a serious federal law, and breaking it carries severe consequences. People who work in the entertainment, publishing, or other media industries are primarily concerned about these issues since they deal with media on a regular basis.

But what about nonprofit organizations? Is there ever a need for nonprofit organizations to worry about copyright law? Yes! Copyright law crosses all boundaries regarding industry, ideologies, and business situations, including nonprofits.

The Rules of Copyright

Copyright Law is one of those areas that, the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. This is because there are about as many unique situations that have to do with copyrights as there are exceptions and extenuating circumstances, but we have put the basic tenets of copyright law below.

  • Copyright law is meant to protect the creator of an intellectual work.
  • The law covers not only the possession but also the use of the work.
  • A work is copyrighted the minute it is completed in a tangible form (includes digital formats).
  • The fines for copyright law are severe ($250,000 per offense) plus civil penalties.
  • The whole idea of copyright law is to give the author or creator freedom to decide what happens with their intellectual property.
  • It guarantees that they can make money on their creation.

The above tenets of copyright law are fairly straightforward. But there are many caveats and exceptions with some of them. It all has to do with when the work was created, which copyright standard the material is under, and what you do with the job. But, in general, you should never download or use any intellectual property that you do not own the rights to unless you are planning to use it for your personal use only.

Most copyright holders do not have a problem with people using their material for personal use. This might include using a photo as a background on their home computers, sharing a video in an email, and such. However, if the work reaches “publishing” status, (where 2 or more people see it), you need to follow the laws of copyright to the letter.

Simple permission from the copyright holder may be all that is often required to be able to legally use images, videos, audio files, and any other type of copyrighted media or material. It’s best to send a letter through postal mail (the traditional way) to the person and ask them to sign it and return it to you. The statement will cover anything the author or creator is willing to let you share with others by their signature. They should sign and date it, then return it to you. Once you get this “contract” in your hands, you now have legal permission to use the material in the way agreed upon in the contract.

If you do not get written permission from the copyright holder, you have no legal right to use any copyrighted work. Even a nonprofit organization puts itself at legal risk doing so.

Piracy it's a crime

Common Myths of Copyright Law

There are many misunderstandings and misconceptions surrounding copyright law. Some of the most misunderstood concepts are listed below. The explanations for each one follow below this section.

  1. I bought the work, so I have the right to use it.
  1. If I am not making money, I cannot get in trouble.
  1. If the copyright symbol is not present, it is fair game.
  1. If I don’t use the entire work, it’s okay to use it.
  1. If I use it in a “derivative work,” it’s perfectly legal.
  1. If it’s online, it’s fair game to use.
  1. It’s fine, as long as I attribute the author or creator.

Unfortunately, all of these statements are wrong. Let’s go through them one at a time.

Myth #1: The first one is talking about ownership. If you downloaded a song from iTunes or Amazon, this only permits you to play it on your own devices. It does not give you permission to email, use, publish, or distribute it in any way.

Myth #2: Some people honestly believe that if they are not making money, they are not breaking any copyright laws. Wrong! The question to ask is not whether you are making money; it is whether the artist is making money! For example, if you are providing a clip of a song, picture, or video that has copyright restrictions, you are sharing something for free that the artist could sell! This means they are not making money. They can sue you for damages for every time you used the content without their permission, plus any royalties they might have made for the performance rights.

Myth #3: Just because the copyright symbol is absent does not mean it is not copyrighted. You need to look up the history of the content and find out who owns the copyright before using it.

Myth #4: If you don’t use the entire work, such as a portion of a song or video, you may be in less legal jeopardy under the “Fair Use” clause. However, you must be able to show that you did not show any more than 10% of a work and there are other criteria that you may be required to show to disprove copyright infringement. You must also show how your content was only used for educational purposes.

Myth #5: Derivative works are works that are taken from the original work and used to create a new work. There is a fine line on how much you can do this. It’s risky to do this because the original author may not approve such use. If in doubt, get a signature.

Myth #6: The idea that anything online is fair game is just plain wrong. Issuing “apologies” in case of infringement doesn’t cut it either.

Myth #7: Attribution is not enough to protect yourself from copyright violation. Attributing the author or creator is required whether you get permission or not. It does not make it legal to share or publish another person’s work.

So there you have it; those are some of the most misunderstood ideas regarding copyright law. These laws apply to everyone, whether you are a musician, company, individual, or nonprofit organization. Even public educators have to check to make sure the use of content does not break any copyright laws before they are allowed to present it in front of a group or class.

Do your research. Ask a lawyer if you believe that you have illegally downloaded material. If you have been challenged on this after you have already done it, see an attorney today to ask what you should do. If you can present your argument in such a way that illustrates your intentions were not to take away from the artist’s profits or that you misunderstood the law, you may not be held liable. But it’s not worth the risk.

If in doubt, check it out

Go to the copyright.gov to check the latest copyright legislation. The FCC has allowed some backing up of files to portable media and other things in recent years. But you must follow the law. Use caution when dealing with another person’s work. Bookmark sites like Shutterstock.com and others that allow you to purchase royalty-free images to avoid a problem. See a lawyer if you already have one. Don’t wait. The fines are stiff, and one mistake can break you financially.

Remember: Copyright law protects you, too. Learn the law and use it to your advantage with your own intellectual property.

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