Special Copyright Provisions for Certain Nonprofits

As discussed in our prior article, use of a copyrighted work by a nonprofit organization will not usually qualify as a fair use. However, several statutory provisions of the Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq.) allow certain nonprofit organizations to use copyrighted works without obtaining the copyright owner’s permission. Most of those provisions have very technical requirements and apply to limited circumstances. Before relying on one of those provisions, the nonprofit organization should review all statutory requirements to make sure its use qualifies. One of the more useful provisions allows a nonprofit organization to perform a nondramatic literary or musical work at fundraisers. In order to qualify for this provision, no admission fees can be charged at the showing, those performing the work must do so at no charge, and all proceeds from the performance, such as donations, must be used exclusively for charitable purposes. 

Another provision allows churches to perform nondramatic literary or musical works at regularly-occurring church worships services. A caveat is that this provision covers only the live performance at a religious service. This does not include streaming the performance on the church website, distributing copies of the performance, or performing the work at a church social function. Those uses require the permission of the copyright owner. 

In the area of education, schools may perform or display a work in a classroom setting if done under the supervision of the instructor and if the work is related to the content being taught in the class. Any uses outside of those parameters by a school would likely require a license. 

Other provisions are much more obscure, but they could be useful to organizations that qualify for them and the people they serve. In limited situations, libraries may copy works for purposes of preservation, scholarship, or research or to make a decision about purchasing the work. Nonprofit organizations that have a primary mission of providing specialized services to blind persons may create Braille versions of nondramatic literary works. Veterans and fraternal organizations may perform nondramatic literary and musical works at their members’ social functions, as long as proceeds are used for charitable purposes.  However, if the fraternal organization is a college fraternity or sorority, this exemption applies only if the sole purpose of the function is to raise money for charity. A provision that may be useful in rural areas allows agricultural organizations to perform nondramatic musical works at an annual fair.     

The special protections or exemptions copyright law confers on nonprofit organization can be very nuanced. It can be risky to rely on them without carefully examining the law and applying it to the facts of each specific situation. Before relying on one of those provisions, nonprofit organizations should seek competent legal advice.   

This article is provided for general information and should not be relied upon as legal advice for a specific situation. If you are in need of specific advice or legal representation, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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