Can a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization own intellectual property that generates funds if the funds all go to the 501(c)(3) for charitable uses? Can that same organization hire writers to produce the intellectual property, with the copyrights to be owned by the (c)(3) to generate income for the organization’s mission?
Yes. It is done all the time. Some of the clearest examples might be public radio, public television, or the National Geographic Society, but there are multitudes of arts groups, educational organizations and others that develop their own intellectual property that is offered for sale to others. If the sale or use of the work furthers the charitable exempt purpose of the organization, the sale does not generate unrelated business income, without regard to the amount of the income earned. If, however, the material is unrelated to the charitable purpose of the organization, it would generate unrelated business taxable income without regard to the use of the funds generated. “Too much” unrelated business income can cost an organization its exemption. (See Ready Reference Page: “Charities Often Worry About UBIT”)
Normally, intellectual property produced by an individual under an employment agreement with an employer is deemed to be a “work for hire” and owned by the employer, but there can be exceptions. If your organization contemplates selling intellectual property produced by others, you may want to talk with an attorney about the agreement to be sure that the creator has no claim of ownership.