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Does the volunteer own the intellectual property?

  • Written by Peter Martel


When a volunteer creates IP or intellectual property such as a logo, content, videos, or photographs, the law shall consider that the IP belongs to an individual and not to an organization. It is recommended that the ownership of an IP is made before the beginning of volunteering roles and it forms part of the volunteer agreement.

Who is a volunteer?

According to the popular online Cambridge dictionary, a “Volunteer” is “a person who does something, especially helping other people willingly without being forced or paid to do it”.

This definition of volunteer clearly categorizes persons who provide a helping hand to others doing some important jobs but don’t have any obvious interest in owning the job.

So, as far as intellectual property is concerned, a volunteer is a person who has a significant or simple contribution to the creation of the property. On the other hand, your employees, the consultant, or the contactor are not volunteers because they are paid for their jobs. But unlike employees, independent consultants or contractors have rights over the intellectual properties in different capacities. Volunteers with significant contributions also enjoy rights in the same capacity as an independent contractor or consultant.

For instance, a friend, a relative came to know about the work you are currently pursuing. They then showed some interest in it and you discussed the matter. At the time of discussion, they made some good suggestions or gave you some important tips. It opened up a new door of research related to your work. This friend or relative was a volunteer. But, do you think they will demand IP in this case? May or may not be depending on the importance of the IP and of course, your relationship with them.

Rights of a volunteer

As discussed earlier, a volunteer contributes something to your work or research process out of their own interest in the topic. So, they are not your employee and you are not taking their support in the capacity of an employer.

The general rule is that an employer is the owner of the created by an employee. In this situation, the position of a volunteer is just like the position of an independent contractor or consultant. A consultant or a contractor who works independently and whom you have appointed from outside sources own the IP or intellectual properties that they create until other arrangements have been agreed upon prior to the inception of the project. In this case, the consultant or contractor working in their independent capacity as per the agreement can demand the IP created during the course of the project if the agreement paper says anything contrary to that autonomic process.

A volunteer has the same right. That means, if they demand the IP, you cannot deny it. If you want that IP, you should go for an agreement with the volunteer.

An employer owns the intellectual property made by employees during employment, this same rule is not applicable when you engage a consultant, volunteer, or contractor. If there is not any contract, a consultant or contractor shall own the IP that the consultant or contractor creates.

If the agreement through which a consultant or contractor is hired is silent regarding the ownership of IP, the law shall include a license from the contactor to you to allow you to use the IP created by the consultant or the contractor. However, you will not own the IP.

When you engage a consultant or a volunteer, and you want to own the IP arising from hiring, you should expressly offer this in an engagement agreement.

How can volunteers protect themselves?

Volunteers can protect their IP ownership right and avoid disputes through written agreements. Engaging a volunteer or a freelancer or an independent contractor that includes creating IP property must include a contract drafted by attorneys who focus on contract law, copyrights, and IP.

So, a volunteer is not considered an employee of a company and therefore the company does not have the right to own the IP. The right remains with the volunteer.

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