Protecting Your Organization’s Intellectual Property

Man at iPad

by the Nonprofit Risk Management Center

Does your nonprofit organization have a website to communicate its mission? Does your organization distribute educational brochures or pamphlets to the public? Does it advertise services and fundraising events via the internet or in print communications?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, your organization could be at risk for an intellectual property infringement lawsuit.

What is Intellectual Property? 
Intellectual property is a legal term granting exclusive rights to the creator and/or owner of intangible artistic and commercial assets. Most commonly, intellectual property is defined as copyrights, patents and trademarks. Copyrights cover literary, artistic and musical works. Patents protect inventions and improvements to existing inventions. Trademarks are brand names and/or designs which are applied to products or used in connection with services.

What Constitutes Infringement? 
Allegations of copyright infringement can arise when a word or a phrase appearing in your promotional efforts is used without permission of the copyright owner, thus violating their exclusive rights of use. Similarly, allegations of trademark infringement arise when a certain picture or logo is used without permission, violating the exclusive rights attached to a trademark. Using copyrighted or trademarked materials without permission on a website or an advertisement can leave your nonprofit exposed to costly litigation.

A Recent Trademark Infringement Case 
A nonprofit organization advertised its annual fundraising event in the local newspaper and by distributing flyers throughout the community. A business owner received a flyer and noted a symbol used on the flyer was too similar to his business logo. He immediately sent a letter to the nonprofit demanding the organization to cease using the symbol in its promotional activities. The business owner held exclusive trademark rights to the logo and argued that continued use by the nonprofit would lead to confusion, thus constituting trademark infringement. The matter was ultimately resolved prior to litigation, but defense costs and settlement fees were significant.

Even the most unassuming website or the simplest advertisement for a fundraising event can lead to a lawsuit. Just adding what appears to be an innocuous phrase or generic symbol to a website or brochure can unknowingly result in copyright or trademark litigation.

As a nonprofit develops any written, visual, audio or video material, do your due diligence. Search for images or words that may already be in use by others. Look at images available through creative commons licenses. And of course avoid being “overly inspired” by others and creating material too similar to that of its inspiration.

Nonprofits do not have to face these risks alone. A nonprofit management liability insurance policy protects the organization from expenses arising from legal claims and litigation. This type of insurance is much more affordable that you may think.