Volunteers and Copyright: Best Practices

Our church members give generously of their time and talent, often providing volunteer hours to help the church accomplish tasks necessary to its ministry.  Does your church use photographs taken by volunteers on its website or social media?  Do volunteer Sunday School teachers write programming or curricula?  Does your church produce a collection of devotionals written by members?  Do you know who owns the copyrights to these works?  Read on to discover best practices in honoring and using works created by volunteers.  If you need to brush up on the basics, check out the following resources first, and then come back to learn more:

In general, a volunteer who creates a work for a church will own the copyright to that work.

In general, the copyright to a work created by a volunteer for a church belongs to the volunteer.  Copyright ownership of works in the U.S. is governed by the Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. sec. 1701 et seq.).  A work can be nearly any creative work:  a photograph, musical composition or arrangement, poem, story, sermon, curriculum, etc.  Under the law, the author(s) of the work is the first copyright owner of that work.  There are a couple of exceptions to this for “works for hire.”  An employer will own the works of an employee who creates works in the course of their employment.  Also, if a person hires another person to create a work that falls into specific categories, and the parties agree in writing that the work will be a work for hire, the hiring party will own the copyright.  

Volunteers, by definition, are not employees or hired parties.  Because of this, the “work for hire” exceptions will not apply, and the copyright will be owned by the volunteer.  This may come as a surprise to both churches and volunteers.  While most volunteers do the work with the intention that the church may use it how it sees fit, some circumstances may arise after the work’s creation that make having policies around the use of copyrighted materials beneficial to both the church and the volunteer.  The church, for example, may want to share the volunteer’s work with another church or organization, but it may not have the rights to legally do so.  The volunteer may also want to allow their work to be used by others while continuing to allow the church to use it.  Of course, a volunteer could also ask the church to stop using a work that the church has come to rely upon.   

Establish mutual expectations about the use of volunteer-created works.

If your church regularly relies on volunteers to create musical compositions, take photographs, write devotionals, or create other works, it is a best practice to have a policy on volunteer creation of works.  The policy should 1) acknowledge the copyright to works created by volunteers are owned by volunteers; 2) provide that the church must give its prior authorization for a volunteer to create and use a work in the church; and 3) state the volunteer is expected to enter into a written license agreement for the church’s use of the work.  The policy will give the church the ability to ensure the appropriate licensing agreement is in place before the work is used by the church.  In this way, the church can honor the work of the volunteer while also maintaining knowledge of and control over how volunteer-created works are being used in the church’s ministry.  The policy, though, is not sufficient on its own, and a written agreement should be in place for each work to protect both the volunteer and the church.

A written license agreement protects both the church and the volunteer.

  The church can use a license agreement to acknowledge the volunteer’s ownership of the copyright, allow the church to use the work for its ministry, and protect itself against a later claim of copyright infringement.  The license agreement may be nonexclusive, meaning the volunteer could also license the work to others.  It may also be perpetual and irrevocable, meaning the church can use the work forever and the agreement cannot be terminated.  The license agreement may even give the church the right to license the work to others under certain circumstances—for religious or educational purposes, for example.  A license agreement can vary widely in its scope and terms, depending on the intent of the parties.  It’s worth the investment to hire an attorney to create a template license agreement that can be used for volunteer works.  If the church wants to own all rights to the work, an attorney can also assist in drawing up a legally binding copyright transfer agreement.

To reduce risk of church liability, train your volunteers on copyright policies and procedures.

Even volunteers who are not creating works for the church need to be aware of copyright policies and procedures.  Churches may be liable for copyright infringement if a volunteer acts on behalf of a church in a way that does not comply with the law.  Volunteer church members who are tasked with planning elements of a worship service or other programming should be aware of any copyright licenses maintained by the church, the acceptable use and reproduction of music under those licenses, and whether there are special licensing requirements for recording, streaming, or broadcasting services containing music or other copyrighted works.  Volunteers who draft newsletters, handle social media posts, update the church’s website, or produce other content on behalf of the church should also be trained on copyright basics and reminded not to use others’ content in ways that may expose the church to a copyright infringement claim.   

The information provided in this article is not legal advice.  If you need legal advice, please consult with an attorney.

Categories: General Counsel Blog

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