Your voluntary organisation and Copyright. A ‘need to know’ guide

Copyright is a form of Intellectual Property (IP) that is relevant to each and every charity and voluntary organisation, yet it is something that most trustees, committee members or management teams either overlook or are ignorant about.

Which is a pity because it’s quite useful, fairly simple to understand in principle, yet can cause a financial risk to your organisation. Recent discussions in the sector have shown that a lot of otherwise very capable charities are falling foul of copyright law to the extent of being in the position of negotiating smaller fines for copyright infringement, when avoiding fines in the first place would be ideal!

So here’s my quick guide to some important points about Copyright. It’s not comprehensive, nor is it legal advice. (Like so many aspects of running a business or a charity you need to take responsibility for double checking any advice and seeking professional expertise when appropriate.)

However, if you’re a Member or Friend of VANEL and you’d like to discuss Copyright (or other Intellectual Property) in more detail, please get in touch with me (Karl Elliott).

What is Copyright?

Definition: Copyright is a legal right that grants the creator of an original work exclusive rights to determine whether, and under what conditions, this original work may be used by others.

Think photographs, logos, graphic designs of posters, articles, blog posts, music, videos and so on. Each of these were created by someone, and that original creator is automatically the Copyright owner.

Copyright does not need registering, it is automatic. We place Copyright notices on websites and documents to tell people we are exercising our copyright rights, but this is not a requirement or a guarantee of copyright.

And if you need a source of reference, the authority for Copyright in the UK is the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) and the relevant website is here.

Your organisation either uses or creates copyright materials.

Using Copyright materials

The single most common copyright mistake is using a copyright work that you do not have the rights to use. If you do that you’ve breached copyright, broken the law and can be liable for fines and so on.

So if your cheap and cheerful web designer (who you’re using to save money), pops a few photographs onto your website that he found on the internet, but some of those had digital footprints (code added to the image to make it traceable) and the copyright was not yours, then you’ve probably just infringed copyright. Next you can expect a letter or call from a legal firm, or Getty images or similar, sending you a fine for copyright infringement. You may be able to plead ignorance, negotiate a reduction in your licencing fee (fine), but you’re still guilty and liable, and suddenly that cheap website wasn’t such a bargain and your management oversight is looking a bit ropey.

That was not a fictitious scenario. I’ve personally worked with three small businesses who faced exactly that situation, and I’ve heard of many, many other businesses and charities falling foul in the same way.

Whether it’s a graphic design, a photograph, a logo or some text, it’s still copyright and belongs to someone – you just need to make sure you know who and sort out permissions to use it.

Just because a photo can be easily found online does not mean you can use it. The permission to use a copyright work is a licence and sometimes of course these licences are indeed very open and royalty free, but there’s still a copyright owner – you just need to understand the licensing arrangements. If someone sends you a photograph from an event then the copyright is still theirs, they might just be giving you permission – a licence – to use it in particular ways. And your best bet is to get those licencing arrangements recorded in writing so that everyone knows what’s what.

Creating copyright

Of course the best option is to create and use your own copyright materials. So if you take a photo, create an original logo design, write your own blog post, paint a painting, record a video and so on, then the copyright in the material is your own, you don’t need a licence or permission to use it and you can use, reuse and redesign it as you wish.


Who is the real owner? If your organisation is a legal entity such as registered charity, a CIO or a company, and the item was created by a staff member in the course of their job, then yes, your charity owns the copyright.

But what if it’s a volunteer that created it? Or you’re a constituted group, in which case the likelihood is that everyone is a volunteer?

In those cases it is the volunteer that is the creator and owner of the copyright, not you.

Similarly if you hire a photographer, writer, graphic designer, web designer or other out sourced creative talent. By default they are the copyright owner not your organisation.

In all cases you’re probably starting with a basic licence to use the copyright material in a particular way, but that doesn’t mean you have a licence to reuse, redesign, republish and so on.

So that’s where you need to get a written copyright agreement in place. This could mean making sure the terms and conditions with your external supplier (web designer?) includes a suitable copyright agreement. But it could also mean you need to come to an agreement with your volunteers too.

The principles

I’m not looking at licencing agreements here – my intention is just to explain some principles. With Copyright, the very basics are:

WHAT is the Copyright work? Photo, video, words etc

WHO is the creator of that? Staff, volunteer, external, third party, unknown internet person?

WHERE is the licence arrangement? In some terms and conditions? Verbal? Unknown? Wherever it is, make sure you’re clear and have it written down and recorded.

Apply this across all your organisation and your work and you’re already getting on top of your Copyright and Intellectual Property matters.

So when you commission that cheap and cheerful web designer, a) are they competent – do they understand copyright themselves?,b) have you instructed them clearly enough about what they can and can’t use? Why not just make sure you provide them materials and content that you’re clear about the copyright and licensing? And c) what is your written agreement, contract or terms and conditions that sets out use of copyright and indeed ownership of the copyright of the website itself once complete?


The basic principles of copyright are simple IF you know them and follow them through. WHAT is the copyright work in question? WHO is the creator (hence copyright owner)? WHERE is the licence agreement or arrangements dealt with? Get all that right and you’re in a better position than before.

Final points

Of course there’s always more to it than that (otherwise Intellectual Property lawyers wouldn’t be able to charge the hourly rates they do!). So this article was just a starting point.

Other things to look out for:

Agreements with your grant funders. What do they say about Copyright your create during the funding period? Do you own it or will they?

Moral rights. You may have the copyright of that photograph but the people you photograph in it have moral rights too that could control how you use the photo.

Copyright exemptions. You can often use copyright works in the context of review or critique or other scenarios such as personal research. But as a business or charity you need to examine these exemptions to see if they are relevant.

Newspaper licencing. Everything in a newspaper is of course copyright. So you’ll need a licence if you’re going to use it or reproduce it. And, no, you can’t just use that photo taken by the Grimsby Telegraph without permission!

Out of copyright. Photographer dead and gone 100 years ago? Chances are the photo is out of copyright of course and you can use it. Particularly relevant if you’re going a Heritage style project.

Exploitation. If you’re creating copyright works then why not exploit them and make money from them. Not always possible or easy but worth a consideration.

What you can’t copyright. You cannot copyright an idea. So that brilliant idea you have for a project or a training course is not copyright. Once you create your training manual or project description then those specific works are copyright and protected, but the idea itself can be used by others to create their own copyright works. Just how it is.

Trademarks. You might design a logo (creating copyright), but a logo can also become a Trademark which has different protections. (The SVA logo for example is a Trademark of VANEL and comes under Trademark protection).

Enforcement. You might need to think about what you do when you find someone is infringing your copyright. How will you pursue this?

Complex copyright. Saying you have copyright on your website is simple to say but much more complex in reality. What specific bits are we copyrighting as a website is made of hundreds of components? Probably you just mean words and picture, but what if some of those are other peoples copyright?


Think it through at management level. Assess Copyright in your organisation and get some plans in place.

VANEL can give you a few pointers as Members or Friends, but other than that I can carry out a basic Intellectual Property review and assessment to try and steer you in the right direction. Our hourly rates apply but of course I’m a bit cheaper than finding a Copyright lawyer, and although you can’t take my advice as legal advice, I’ve been doing this for many years and I can get you 80% of the way there and help get you in a better position than taking no advice at all.

I can also run bespoke training for your board or management team on all aspects of intellectual property. Just ask.

Karl Elliott, Development Manager, VANEL
01472 361043,