RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Fiction Writing Activity as Library Program, Fan Fiction, and Copyright - 4/27/2020
I am in the stages of planning a library one-time-only event aimed at getting college students int...
Posted: Monday, April 27, 2020 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

I am in the stages of planning a library one-time-only event aimed at getting college students interested in writing their own works of fiction. There are no class credits involved. My premise is “Where do ideas come from?”

Some now-published authors first writing attempts were in writing fan fiction (fanfic). I may suggest that as a possibility while advising the students that they cannot legally make any money from such works. I was also planning on mentioning pastiche works, where they could have similar characters, situations, etc. Now I wonder if that is an improvement?

I recall a Sherlock Holmes inspired character called Solar Pons. The Solar Pons stories basically consisted of all the Holmes characters with different names, though mentioning Sherlock in the stories. These works were published by August Derleth and later by Basil Copper. [see the attached newspaper article from the 2015 issue of the independent]

I hoped to suggest either of these options as a way to spark some interest, but wonder I’d be opening a can of worms that is best kept shut.

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

For this question, the Law Office of Stephanie Adams, PLLC used a ringer--experienced publishing law and published author Sallie Randolph, who works in our office, advising authors on publishing contracts.  We asked Sallie for her take--as both a copyright attorney and an author--on this intriguing question. Here is her reply:

A library program aimed at sparking the interest of college students in writing fiction is a great idea!  Encouraging them to try their hands at fan fiction is good way to give them a jump start. Fan fiction writing can build skills related to such fiction elements as plot and character, and writing fan fiction is widely acknowledged as an effective way to build writing skills, but it is also highly controversial.

I share your concern about the legal risks involved with writing fan fiction. Most college students don’t understand enough about the nuances of copyright law to truly “get” the reasons why they probably shouldn’t share their work online. Absent the consent of the copyright owner, there is no right to create fan fiction. It’s that simple. But the reasons why are complex.

Under copyright law, a work that is “based on” another work is defined as a “derivative work.” The  right to create a derivative work is reserved by law to the author of the original work. In the process, a derivative work becomes an independently copyrightable new work. However, the right to write a derivative work requires permission of the original author. Fan fiction is a derivative work, and, therefore, if unauthorized, is infringing.

Writers who want to create fan fiction should do so with extreme caution. Swirling around in cyberspace are myriad justifications for copyright infringement. Many copyright myths also circulate in cyberspace. People may think it’s OK to post their fan fiction on the web because they’re generating  publicity for the original author, or because they don’t make money, or because  writing fanfic is paying a compliment to the author, or because the original work is out of print. There are dozens of excuses.

Copyright is literally the right to copy. Copyright infringement is what lawyers call a “strict liability tort.” If you copy without permission you are infringing. Assumptions, excuses, and myths are dangerous. Only the copyright owner has the right to decide what others can or cannot do with her work. Copyright owners have no obligation to explain their motives for granting or withholding permission. They have no obligation to even reply to permission requests. There is no such thing as default consent. The obligation to get permission falls squarely on the shoulders of the writer fan.

There are authors who don’t mind fan fiction, a few who actually encourage it, and many others who are solidly against it. Sometimes infringers get away with it because of what I call “author exhaustion.” Such authors are against fan fiction and other forms of infringement, but they’re tired of trying to assert their rights against the infringers. Trying to get infringing material taken down from YouTube, for example, has been compared to playing whack-a-mole.

We’ve all heard stories about how authors feel – about how Fifty Shades of Gray started out as fan fiction, or how a sequel to Catcher in the Rye resulted in the “fan” losing big time in a major lawsuit. The fan author is almost always the party at legal risk, and the misunderstood defense of fair use almost never applies to fan fiction. There was a rare case in which a retelling of Gone with the Wind from a black character’s point of view was held not to be infringing because of the important historical point that it made.

I have read online that J.K. Rowling reads and enjoys speculative fiction about Harry Potter and his fellow characters. I have also read that J.K. Rowling is highly protective of the Harry Potter brand and has threatened to sue fans for including Harry in their writing. I have seen her name on lists of authors who encourage fans to write about Harry and on other lists of authors who do not allow such use.

I know a number of authors who hate the idea of fan fic but have decided not to engage in this particular copyright war. I know of more than one author who have asked fans for plot suggestions from their readers, only to be threatened with lawsuits when they published a story vaguely similar to a reader suggestion. Well intentioned people can argue in circles about the legal and ethical risk. Fan fiction has become a volatile topic.

But what if the all that volatility and copyright debate can be avoided? Many  people seem to think that lawyers are impractical, and I acknowledge that we can often get distracted into theoretical debates. In this case, however, I am happy to offer a piece of  practical advice. It’s simple: focus your event on encouraging students to base their fan fiction on public domain works.

Literature of the past has often inspired new works. Classic stories could similarly spark the interests of the students attending your event. A famous example is West Side Story – a retelling of the Shakespeare classic Romeo and JulietKiss me Kate is based on Taming of the Shrew. Fairy tales (the original ones, not the Disney versions), fables, and folk tales are interesting to adapt. Bible stories are fair game. Even some of the Sherlock Holmes stories are now in the public domain. Classic novels such as Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, Little Women, Kidnapped, or Huckleberry Finn, are just a few examples of fanfiction possibilities. One word of caution: New fan fiction should be based on the original public domain work, not on another fan’s adaptation of that work.

Using public domain works to encourage fan fiction will let you meet the goal of your event by kicking that can of worms on down the road.

Many thanks to Sallie for lending us her insights and experience!
 

Tags: Copyright, Library Programming and Events, Public Domain, Fan Fiction

Topic: Online Library Programming (Any Type of Program) - 4/1/2020
Our library is arranging more online programming in response to COVID-19 closures and reductions.&...
Posted: Wednesday, April 1, 2020 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

Our library is arranging more online programming in response to COVID-19 closures and reductions.  What should we be thinking about in making these arrangements?

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

Can a library sponsor an online class open to the public?  YES.

There are just a few details to attend to:

1.  The financial details

Libraries do not charge for programming, but can pay others to offer library programming for free, so as the member says, this online program should be open “to anyone.”[1]

The instructor can still be paid, but the payment should come from the library, while the on-line attendees tune into this library program for free. 

The trick in this is to avoid “fiscal hybridization,” (with the library hosting and promoting the event, and the instructor getting some payment from some attendees).

 

2.  The online content details

Once your library has confirmed the financial details,[2] there should be complete understanding about the following questions:

Can the library promote the class using the instructor’s name and likeness?

Will the session be recorded?

Who owns the recording?

Will the library be able to use the recording for as long as it wants?

What platforms will the session and recording be hosted on?

Will the recording be put in the collection of the library?

What social media will the session be promoted on?

Will the session use music (that could stop it from being posted some places, like YouTube)?

That’s it, nothing fancy, just have some things to have clarity about.

 

3.  The participant details

Once you have the details of the way the class will go “out there,” confirm:

Who is our target audience?

Do they have any particular vulnerabilities?

Do we need to consider ADA access such as captioning?

How will we collect feedback on the programs?

 

4.  The contract details

With all that minutia settled, here is a template agreement to organize the details. 

Of course, as with all template contracts, if you can,[3] have this template customized for your library by your local lawyer or insurance carrier.

ONLINE INSTRUCTION AGREEMENT

 

The [LIBRARY] (“Library”)and [NAME] (“Instructor”), with an address of [ADDRESS], to provide critical health programming at a time of state-wide pandemic emergency, agree as follows:

Instructor will offer classes in ____________ (“__________ Classes”) from [PHYSICAL LOCATION] to Library’s patrons and others via:

[INSERT HOSTING METHOD AND STREAMING SITE(S)]

Classes will be live streamed at [INSERT TIMES, DATES].

The ___________ Classes will be a target audience of those who can benefit from online social gatherings to participate in ___________________. 

[in case of activity involving a professional license] Instructor’s professional license was granted by [LICENSING AUTHORITY] and is current; if the license expires or is revoked during the term of this agreement, Instructor will notify Library immediately.

[in case of instruction involving physical activity] To promote safe participation, at the start and end of every class, the screen will read, or the Instructor will say:

[INSERT Instructor’s preferred safety and wellness message; here is a sample that is customized for the times:

[ACTIVITY] is intended as a gentle but serious exercise.  Please consult your physician prior to any physical activity that could impact your health, and only participate within your know abilities.  Please stay safe during this time of social distancing and enjoy our class.]

___________ Classes will be promoted as a free program of the library and Instructor shall not charge individual attendees for these sessions.

Library will pay Instructor _____ per session. 

[OR]

Instructor has agreed to provide this programming on a volunteer basis.

Instructor agrees that no music or other copyrighted work other than content owned or properly licensed to Instructor and Library shall be used during recorded or live-streamed __________ Classes.

Instructor agrees that Library may use their name, likeness, and image when promoting ____________ Classes. Library agrees that Instructor may use its name, likeness, and image when promoting _____________ Classes.

All sessions of __________ will be recorded by [INSERT] and the recording will be jointly owned by Instructor and Library.  This means both parties shall have the right to make copies, distribute in any way, or otherwise use the copyrights to the recordings.

Instructor hereby agrees to hold harmless and indemnify Library for any claim, cause of action, or injury arising from the creation, promotion, and participation in ________ Classes.

Instructor is an independent contractor and no partnership, joint venture, or relationship other than what is in this Agreement is created or implied by this Agreement.

The Parties both understand that this is an agreement during a time of emergency and this contract may be terminated without notice.  Any changes to this contract shall be confirmed via e-mail reflecting clear mutual agreement by the parties.

This agreement is governed by the laws of the State of New York.

 

Signed for Library on _________:_______________________

                                                                        [NAME]

 

Signed for Instructor on _________:_______________________

                                                                        [NAME]

                                                                                               

5.  The assessment details

As with any library program, a live-streamed event is one for the staff to watch, monitor, and assess on a continual basis.  This will allow you to assess if the promotion, the session, and the recordings comply with the Agreement, and to make enhancements based on participant feedback.  It is also another way to limit the risks inherent in the activity. 

Just as critical, though, will be feedback that the class felt accessible, gave good instruction, and had a positive impact.

I wish you many valuable and rewarding online programs.



[1] I also would not have a concern with it being restricted to card-holders within a system, or card-holders registering in advance to participate for free.

[2] The instructor could also do this as a volunteer, but if they do good work, it is nice for them to get paid.

[3] If you can, this template should be reviewed by the lawyer who knows your library best.  But given the current crises and the need to reach people quickly, and the strain on budgets, I appreciate that you might laugh at this footnote.

 

Tags: COVID-19, Emergency Response, Library Programming and Events, Streaming, Online Programming

Topic: Live streaming a chair yoga program - 3/30/2020
Can we sponsor an online chair yoga class open to the public? We hosted this program on Mondays in...
Posted: Monday, March 30, 2020 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

Can we sponsor an online chair yoga class open to the public? We hosted this program on Mondays in person and would like to make it available during our COVID 19 closure. The instructor can live stream herself with payment and we'd like to open it up to anyone. Do we need waivers or disclaimer language on our website?

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

Can a library sponsor an online chair yoga class open to the public?  YES.

There are just a few details to attend to:

1.  The financial details

Libraries do not charge for programming but can pay those who offer library programming for free, so as the member says, this online chair yoga program should be open “to anyone.”[1]

In this instance, it sounds like perhaps the instructor has (perhaps) been paying for space in the library, while offering on-site or online classes for a fee.  In the new arrangement proposed by the member, the classes become a free library program.  This means the instructor can still be paid, but the payment should come from the library, while the on-line attendees tune in for free. 

The trick in this is to avoid any “fiscal hybridization;” in no event should the library host and promote the event, while the instructor gets some payment directly from attendees.

                                                               

2.  The online content details

Once your library has confirmed the financial details,[2] there should be complete understanding about the following questions:

Can the library promote the class using the instructor’s name and likeness?

Will the session be recorded?

Who owns the recording?

Will the library be able to use the recording for as long as it wants?

What platforms will the session and recording be hosted on?

Will the recording be put in the collection of the library?

What social media will the session be promoted on?

Will the session use music (that could stop it from being posted some places, like YouTube)?

That’s it, nothing fancy, just have some things to have clarity about.

 

3.  The participant details

Once you have the details of the way the class will go “out there,” confirm:

Who is our target audience?

Do they have any particular vulnerabilities?

Do we need to consider ADA access such as captioning?

How will we collect feedback on the programs?

 

4.  The contract details

With all that minutia settled, here is a template agreement to organize the details. 

Of course, as with all template contracts, if you can,[3] have this template customized for your library by your local lawyer or insurance carrier.

CHAIR YOGA AGREEMENT

The [LIBRARY] (“Library”) and [NAME] (“Yoga Instructor”), a yoga instructor certified by [CERTIFYING BODY], to provide critical health programming at a time of state-wide pandemic emergency, agree as follows:

Yoga Instructor will offer classes in chair yoga (“Chair Yoga Classes”) from [PHYSICAL LOCATION] to Library’s patrons and others via:

[INSERT HOSTING METHOD AND STREAMING SITE(S)]

Classes will be live streamed at [INSERT TIMES, DATES].

The Chair Yoga Classes will be a target audience of those who can benefit from online social gatherings to participate in routine chair yoga. 

To promote safe participation, at the start and end of every class, the screen will read, or the Yoga Instructor will say:

[INSERT Yoga Instructor’s preferred safety and wellness message; here is a sample that is customized for the times:

Chair Yoga is intended as a gentle but serious exercise for the mind and body.  Please consult your physician prior to any physical activity that could impact your health, and only participate within your know abilities.  Please also know that Yoga, in general, can connect you to feelings that you may wish to address with your mental health provider.  Please stay safe during this time of social distancing and enjoy our class.]

Chair Yoga Classes will be promoted as a free program of the library and Yoga Instructor shall not charge individual attendees for these sessions.

Library will pay Yoga Instructor _____ per session. 

[OR] Yoga Instructor has agreed to provide this programming on a volunteer basis.

Yoga Instructor agrees that no music or other copyrighted work other than content owned or properly licensed to Yoga Instructor and Library shall be used during recorded or live-streamed Chair Yoga Classes.

Yoga Instructor agrees that Library may use their name, likeness, and image when promoting Chair Yoga Classes. Library agrees that Yoga Instructor may use its name, likeness, and image when promoting Chair Yoga Classes.

All sessions of Chair Yoga will be recorded by [INSERT] and the recording will be jointly owned by Yoga Instructor and Library.  This means both parties shall have the right to make copies, distribute in any way, or otherwise use the copyrights to the recordings.

Yoga Instructor hereby agrees to hold harmless and indemnify Library for any claim, cause of action, or injury arising from the creation, promotion, and participation in Chair Yoga Classes.

Yoga Instructor is an independent contractor and no partnership, joint venture, or relationship other than what is in this Agreement is created or implied by this Agreement.

The Parties both understand that this is an agreement during a time of emergency and this contract may be terminated without notice.  Any changes to this contract shall be confirmed via e-mail reflecting clear mutual agreement by the parties.

This agreement is governed by the laws of the State of New York.

 

Signed for Library on _________:_______________________

                                                            [NAME]

Signed for Yoga Instructor on _________:_______________________

                                                                                [NAME]

                                                                               

5.  The assessment details

As with any library program, a live-streamed event is one for the staff to watch, monitor, and assess on a continual basis.  This will allow you to the promotion, the session, the recordings to comply with the Agreement, and top make enhancement based on participant feedback.  It is also another way to limit the risks inherent in the activity. 

While there is very little risk of liability for personal injury during livestreamed chair yoga (compared to say, in-person “Acroyoga”…you should see the case law on that![4]), “chair yoga” is targeted to a population with some physical limitations,[5] so attention to these details is a good idea. 

Just as critical, though, will be feedback that the class felt accessible, gave good instruction, and had a positive impact.

And finally, the most important detail for busy library professionals scrambling to serve their communities right now…

 

6. Remember to breathe

…it helps with stress.

Best wishes for a good program, and happy utkatasana.[6]



[1] I also would not have a concern with it being restricted to cardholders within a system, or cardholders registering in advance to participate for free.

[2] The yoga instructor could also do this as a volunteer, but if they do good work, it is nice for them to get paid.

[3] If you can, this template should be reviewed by the lawyer who knows your library best.  But given the current crises and the need to reach people quickly, and the strain on budgets, I appreciate that you might laugh at this footnote.

[4] Here’s a quote from a case, (Malouf v Equinox Holdings, Inc., 38 Misc 3d 1223 [Sup Ct, NY County 2012]): “The exercise during which she was allegedly injured called for her male partner to lie on his back with his legs in the air. She "was told to lean over his feet and put his feet on my pelvis and lean forward and hang limp like a rag doll balancing on his feet with his feet on my pelvic bone”…The next step "was to put our hands together and bring our hands behind our heads with our elbows up in the air" (id.). Then, "the dark-haired girl came and forcefully pushed my elbows behind my head and forcefully brought them together and I screamed Ouch'" (id.). Malouf had not asked for assistance (id. at 31).” 

Ouch, indeed.

[5] Please don’t tell my mother, who does chair yoga at New Hartford Public Library, that I have characterized her activity this way.  There is absolutely no limit to her ability to chastise me over the 180 miles between her house in New Hartford and my house in Buffalo.

[6] “Chair pose.”  One of my favorites.

Tags: COVID-19, Emergency Response, Library Programming and Events, Streaming, Online Programming

Topic: COVID-19 Diagnosed Case Where Person Visited the Library - 3/19/2020
We are seeking guidance as a result of the following: We have been informed (by the Health Depa...
Posted: Thursday, March 19, 2020 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

We are seeking guidance as a result of the following:

We have been informed (by the Health Department and via news media) an individual who now has been confirmed to have COVID-19 attended a program at one of our libraries. I have been asked the following questions:

1. To what extent is it the responsibility of the library to notify participants who attended the library program the person now diagnosed with COVID-19 attended?
If the library bears no responsibility, would you recommend the library, as a courtesy, notify attendees? What of others who may have been in the library at the time of the program - in many cases, the names of these individuals are not known...are we placing the library in a liability situation if we notify some, but not others? If you suggest a courtesy call, can you please provide suggested language?

2. CPLR 4509 speaks to the confidentiality of library records. We have always employed that this further applies to the identification of anyone using the library, those participating in programs, etc. -- meaning that NO information can be provided to anyone without a proper subpoena. Given that this is a situation related to the health and well-being of our community should (they have not, but this is a question that has been asked) the Health Department request the names of program participants does CPLR apply? If so, can you recommend a response to such a question.

Thank you for your assistance.

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

To address this very serious array of questions, we’ll take them one at a time.

To what extent is it the responsibility of the library to notify participants who attended the library program the person now diagnosed with COVID-19 attended?

The library is not obligated to notify individual members of the public regarding possible exposure; the county health department is obligated to notify the New York State Department of Health, and will coordinate the necessary level of response.[1]

If the library bears no responsibility, would you recommend the library, as a courtesy, notify attendees?

In a time of pandemic, information is power.  If the library has the capacity to notify attendees in a way that connects them to meaningful next steps, AND the County Health Department agrees that such notification will be helpful, then: yes, that would be a good thing to do.

However, because the slightest bit of mis-information in this step could potentially cause harm, such a courtesy should only be done in collaboration with the County Health Department.

What of others who may have been in the library at the time of the program - in many cases, the names of these individuals are not known...are we placing the library in a liability situation if we notify some, but not others?

An effort to empower people, through information, to take care of themselves and minimize the spread of disease will not expose the library to liability in the event only known attendees can be alerted.  As stressed above, the greater risk would be mis-informing the public, which is why coordination with the county health department is key.

If you suggest a courtesy call, can you please provide suggested language?

For reasons of confidentiality and accessibility, the notice should not be a verbal phone call, but rather (and only if confirmed as helpful by the County Health Department), a written notice sent to the library’s user’s email address.

Suggested text for your library to review with the health department is:

Dear Library Member:

As you know, the [INSERT] [County Department of Health] is monitoring the development of COVID-19 in our county.

As you can see at the listing [here], the Department has determined that on DATE, a person with COVID-19 attended the [INSERT PROGRAM NAME] program at our library, which ran from TIME to TIME on DATE.

Because the [NAME] Library values every member, and because we believe knowledge is power, we are working with the county to notify individuals who we know were present at the event.  As advised by the County’s guidance [here], encourage you to monitor yourself daily for symptoms of COVID-19.

Further information on what to do in the event of a health concern is on the Health Department’s website at [link].

Your library information is confidential and your participation in the [NAME] event will not be released unless upon your request.

Given that this is a situation related to the health and well-being of our community…[if] the Health Department request the names of program participants does CPLR [4509] apply? If so, can you recommend a response to such a question.

Yes, the confidentiality requirement of CPLR 4509 absolutely still applies.  Here is the language of that law:

Library records, which contain names or other personally identifying details regarding the users of public, free association, school, college and university libraries and library systems of this state, including but not limited to records related to the circulation of library materials, computer database searches, interlibrary loan transactions, reference queries, requests for photocopies of library materials, title reserve requests, or the use of audio-visual materials, films or records, shall be confidential and shall not be disclosed except that such records may be disclosed to the extent necessary for the proper operation of such library and shall be disclosed upon request or consent of the user or pursuant to subpoena, court order or where otherwise required by statute.

Because CPLR 4509 is so clear in its protection of patron information, I am not comfortable concluding that disclosure to a County Health Department is allowed for the “proper operation” of the library, or even in the case of a declared emergency.  Even during times of trouble, we need to follow the law.

However, if the library has the capacity to do so, upon request of the Health Department, the library can write to the impacted patron, and see if the patron will request the disclosure.

Sample outreach to see if the patron wants their information released is:

As a result of a person who visited the [NAME] library testing positive for COVID-19, the county health department has the name and contact information of other patrons who visited during the [EVENT].

By law, your library information is confidential.  Therefore, the [NAME] Library will only disclose your information if you request that we do so. 

Please let us know if you would like us to release your name, address, and phone number on file with the library to the [COUNTY] County Health Department.

You may also directly call the County Health Department about this at [NUMBER]; if you do, tell this it is regarding the COVID-19 case as the [NAME] Library.

In the alternative, the County Health Department may obtain the information via a subpoena or court order.

Those are my answers to the member’s questions.  Here are some additional thoughts:

Legal compliance and ethics are strong supports during tough times. Thank you to the member for thinking this situation through so thoroughly.



[1] 10 NYCRR 2.16v

Tags: COVID-19, CPLR 4509, Emergency Response, Library Programming and Events

Topic: 501c3 Rules for Meeting Room Use - 11/6/2019
I need clarification about the IRS regulations on 501c3 organizations. A local political group ask...
Posted: Wednesday, November 6, 2019 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

I need clarification about the IRS regulations on 501c3 organizations. A local political group asked to use our meeting room space for a 'meet the candidates' event, a library trustee thinks this is not compliant with the "The Restriction of Political Campaign Intervention by Section 501(c)(3) Tax-Exempt Organizations" https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/charitable-organizations/the-restriction-of-political-campaign-intervention-by-section-501c3-tax-exempt-organizations

I think our meeting room policy is very out of date and restricting access to the room based on content of the meeting violates 1st amendment rights, as outlined by ALA: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/meetingrooms

No staff are involved in this event, we have not helped plan it and it was made clear on all the publicity the political group put out that the library is only the venue, we are not hosting, this is not a library program.

Thank you!

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

This answer comes with many disclaimers, because the legal parameters of room access and rental at chartered libraries in New York is variable territory.  In other words: the answer can depend on the library’s “type” (set by its charter), its fundamental rules (found in the bylaws), its IRS status (the “501 (c)(3) mentioned by the member”), its day-to-day rules (controlled by policies), its lease (not all libraries own the space they occupy), and any deed restrictions (although deed restrictions on the basis of speech would bring concerns).

That’s right: education law, not-for-profit corporation law, tax law, real property law…this question has it all!

That being said, the member’s question centers on federal tax law; specifically, the library’s 501(c)(3) status, which not only makes the library tax-exempt, but allows it to receive tax-deductible donations.  This status is an important fund-raising asset, and its many conditions (including not engaging in politics) cannot be taken lightly.

Here is what IRS Publication 557, the go-to for creating a tax-exempt entity, has to say about political activity:

If any of the activities (whether or not substantial) of your [501(c)(3)] organization consist of participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office, your organization won't qualify for tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3). Such participation or intervention includes the publishing or distributing of statements. Whether your organization is participating or intervening, directly or indirectly, in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of each case. Certain voter education activities or public forums conducted in a nonpartisan manner may not be prohibited political activity under section 501(c) (3), while other so-called voter education activities may be prohibited. [emphasis added]

Like many guides from taxing agencies, this one is superficially helpful (I put that part in bold), but upon examination, employs a disclaim that gives very little concrete guidance (I underlined that part).  So, what’s a library with a spare room to do? 

As alluded to in both the member’s question and my opening paragraph, this question doesn’t turn solely on the IRS.  Any 501(c)(3) library that rents or allows free use of space should have a robust “Facility Use Policy”[1] that considers not only IRS regulations, but safety, equal access, and operational priorities (requiring users to clean up after their meeting, to not be noisy, to respect the space).  For a library in a municipally-owned building, care must be taken to ensure use fees are applied in a way that does not violation the NYS Constitution.  And for a library that rents, the Facility Use Policy must harmonize with the lease.

But the member’s question is about 501(c)(3).  So, having established that this consideration is but one of many when giving access to or renting space, here are the three things to consider when a 501(c)(3) rents or gives access to space:

1)  Rental income needs to be a very small percentage of the library’s revenue. 

Section 501(c)(3) requires that income from renting space can’t outweigh donations and other sources of income related to the library’s tax-exempt purpose.  This is something to discuss with the library’s accountant; while rental income isn’t barred, it can bring funding ration and tax consequences that warrant the attention of a professional.

2) The use of the space can’t “inure” to the benefit of any one company or individual.

Section 501(c)(3) also requires that a qualifying organization’s resources can’t directly benefit any one person or entity more than the general public.  For example, free use of the spare room by a person conducting a stained-glass workshop with an admission fee (even a nominal one), can be considered an “inurement.” [2]

3)  As raised by the member’s trustee, the use of the space cannot violate the bar on lobbying (influencing legislation) and political activity (supporting a particular candidate for office).

And as reviewed, Section 501(c)(3) bars political activity (as further defined in the excerpt from 557, above).

“Ask the Lawyer,” has had some fairly large answers, but I don’t have space to address every occurrence that could run afoul of the bar on “political activity.” But what about renting space, on the same terms as to any other entity, to an event like the one described by the member?

Here is what the IRS has to say:[3]

Can a section 501(c)(3) organization conduct business activities with a candidate for public office?

A business activity such as selling or renting of mailing lists, the leasing of office space or the acceptance of paid political advertising may constitute prohibited political campaign activity. Some factors to consider in determining whether an organization is engaged in prohibited political activity campaign include:

a. Whether the good, service or facility is available to candidates in the same election on an equal basis,

b. Whether the good, service or facility is available only to candidates and not to the general public,

c. Whether the fees charged to candidates are at the organization’s customary and usual rates, and

 d. Whether the activity is an ongoing activity of the organization or whether it is conducted only for a particular candidate.

When developing a Facility Use Policy, if a library is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, and wishes to be able to rent space to (among others) political organizations for event, the above-listed factors should be built right into the policy.

Here is some sample language (some of it will sound familiar):

As a 501(c)(3) organization, the NAME library does not participate or intervene, directly or indirectly, in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of each case. Therefore, the use of space in our facility by political organizations or for partisan political events is only available on the same rental terms as for the general public, and is subject to a rental fee that is charged equally to any political group or other individual or group.   NOTE: Certain voter education activities or public forums conducted in a nonpartisan manner may qualify for a fee waiver, just as do other free and open events conducted by a charitable entity for the benefit of the public.

So, what about the member’s scenario?   In the absence of a spot-on facility use policy, I suggest the following process:

  1. Using the appropriate tax guidance, the library needs to decide if this particular “Meet the Candidates” event complies with 501(c)(3); in particular, is to be a “public forum conducted in a nonpartisan manner?”  Or is it skewed to benefit one candidate over the other? 
  1. Is the sponsoring organization a charitable entity, or is there any risk that the terms for using the room would be an “inurement?”  Will donations be solicited?  Is money charged to enter?
  1. If the answer to either shows a risk of violating 501(c)(3), then the library needs to consider if it wants to follow the formula to “do business” with a candidate for public office.  This would mean charging for the use as you would any other use.

If the library’s past practices make following those three steps too blurry, it is best to take a pass on this precise event, and take the time to develop an up-to-date and thorough Facility Use Policy that considers the types of uses the library will allow, and how and when it will charge for them. There are many good models out there to draw inspiration from, but before the board passes such a policy, it would be good to have it reviewed by a lawyer (who has ready the charter, bylaws, other policies, lease, deed, and any other relevant documents).

The member’s library is fortunate to have leadership that is thinking about both the first amendment and safeguarding the organization’s tax status.  Good work.  No matter what the final decision, awareness and commitment to these values serves your community.

 



[1] The member has stated their policy might not be suited to addressing this situation.  We’ll tackle that in a bit.

[2] If this just caused a stab of panic because your library let’s an instructor host a “Yoga for Seniors” class for a minimum fee to the instructor, don’t worry, this event can happen…you just have to do it right.

 

Tags: IRS, Laws, Library Programming and Events, Meeting Room Policy, Policy, Taxes

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