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Copyright and volunteers

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Copyright lets people who make certain types of work to control how it is used. Copyright exists as soon as the work is created or recorded – it doesn’t have to be registered.

The types of work that copyright protects are:

  • original literary works (anything that is written, spoken or sung, eg articles, leaflets, computer programs and databases, as well as novels and lyrics for songs)
  • original dramatic works, including dance or mime
  • original musical works
  • original artistic works, eg paintings, graphic design, photographs, collages, technical drawings, diagrams, maps and logos
  • published editions of works (the layout of a publication)
  • sound recordings in any form
  • films, including videos
  • broadcasts.

Usually, the copyright holder’s permission is needed for the copyright material to be:

  • copied
  • distributed
  • performed or shown in public
  • broadcast
  • adapted.

Copyright normally belongs to the person or people who made the work. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 says that material made by employees belongs to their employer, but doesn’t mention volunteers, so they (not their organisation) have copyright of their work.

Organisations should ask their volunteers to assign (transfer) copyright to them (in writing) or agree a licence in which copyright stays with the volunteer but the organisation can use the work within agreed limits.

There have been cases where volunteers have produced work for important publications such as annual reviews, but after disputes with their organisations have refused to let them use their work.

Organisations should make forms that ask volunteers to assign copyright to them. It should be clear that this is meant to be a legal contract – a way to do this is to pay a nominal amount – eg £1 – for the assignment and mention this in the form.

An alternative to a contract would be a ‘deed’ – this is a legal agreement that does not need the exchange of money. A legal advisor can help you draw one up.

Evidently in either case the formal documentation needs to be limited to the assignment of copyright, and should not encompass any other issues that might be considered to extend the scope of the contract to other aspects of the relationship between the volunteer and the organisation.

There are no statutory guidelines for licensing copyright. However, it makes sense to write an agreement that explains:

  • who is involved
  • the work the licence covers
  • the terms of the licence (how the work can be used)
  • how long the licence lasts.

If a payment is being made, the licence should be clear about what sort of payment it is, eg a one-off fee or an annual fee. Make sure it's clear that any payment is solely for the licence to avoid it being seen as a payment for work, which could create a contract of employment. 

Last reviewed: 19 May 2022

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This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 19 May 2022

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