Copyright law can be confusing, and it doesn’t help that there is a lot of misinformation about copyright and fair use practices. At its core, “copyright” simply means “the right to copy”. The right of the creator or author to copy and reproduce the original work or any part of it.

In this guide, we will cover some of the basics of copyright and “fair use” law, with a focus on the use of copyrighted music in nonprofit and other contexts.

It’s worth noting that copyright laws vary from country to country, so be sure to check your local laws before using any part of any work that you know (or think) is copyrighted.

Non-Profits Don’t Mean Automatically Fair Use

There’s definitely some confusion and misinformation circulating when it comes to the use of copyrighted music in non-profit applications.

You’ve probably heard it before. The typical explanation is that because the nonprofit doesn’t ultimately make any profit from the video or project using the copyrighted material, you are automatically protected by “fair use” copyright law.

But that’s not how copyright law works. The biggest misconception is that nonprofit organizations are somehow protected from copyright infringement because of their nonprofit status.

Copyright and fair use laws apply to all uses of copyrighted works, including the use of copyrighted music for nonprofit purposes, regardless of whether your organization has nonprofit or for-profit status.

Moreover, the term “fair use” is never clearly defined – and intentionally so. Fair use laws are intended to promote free expression for both the copyright owner and for works or other content that comment on the original.

Without fair use laws, there would be no parody or satire. Both are important political and social tools that artists can use to draw attention to injustices or other problems.

However, “fair use” does not apply exclusively to nonprofit organizations. The original creator, as the copyright holder, has the ability to bring an action against anyone who uses any part of his or her work. It is then up to the court to decide whether the copied work or part of the copied work actually infringes copyright.

copyrighted music

Nonprofit Educational Purposes

One place where copyright law clearly mentions non-commercial use of copyrighted works is for educational purposes.

Remember, this is not a loophole through which a company can claim that a video or other reproduction of copyrighted material is for educational purposes. This is not a free pass.

This part of the Fair Use Act applies specifically to nonprofit educational institutions such as libraries and archives. In the most common cases where copyrighted music is used for nonprofit purposes, the education clause does not apply.

Tips for avoiding headaches when using copyrighted music for nonprofits

In many cases, the use of a portion of a copyrighted work with attribution is sufficient to comply with copyright law.

Using a small portion of a copyrighted work or copyrighted music in a nonprofit and for-profit context is usually considered legal and falls under the fair use doctrine. However, if you go this route, it is important to seek legal counsel.

#1 Tip: Obtain Permission from Copyrighted Music Owner

Even if the portion of music or other copyrighted material is insignificant from your perspective, you can avoid trouble by obtaining permission from the original copyright holder. With the copyright owner’s written or otherwise formal permission, you can use the specified portion of the original in your project without fear of litigation.

Different content producers, jurisdictions, and judges have various standards for what qualifies as copyright infringement.

In fair use cases, the law must consider the following:

(1) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(2) the amount and “substantiality of the portion” used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole.

An example from Chron’s Small Business.

Chron’s Small Business cites an example from Brad Templeton of a magazine that used 300 words from President Ford’s memoirs in an article entitled “10 Myths Explained About Copyright.

Although the 300-word section was not a significant portion of the original 200,000-word work in terms of quantity, the court found the article to be a qualitative violation of copyright law.

The 300-word section explained, in Ford’s own words, why he pardoned President Richard Nixon. In the court’s view, this was consistent with much of the original work and was therefore considered to be a copyright infringement.

#2 Tip: Choose Original Creator Specifically License

Except for asking for permission from the original author or company, you can also choose the original creator who specifically licenses music. This kind of music can be used by non-profits. It’s another to avoid copyright issues.

#3 Tips: Using original work by marking their names

In addition, using someone’s original work can be a great way to gain additional exposure for music or other content. When requesting permission, be sure to offer credit to the original author or creator and explain the possible impact and market value of the exposure.