Legal Issues In the Virtual Atmosphere

March 15, 2013

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We often focus our time and attention to legal issues involving face to face meetings. From hotel and convention center contracts to accidents and emergencies while onsite at meetings, legal issues can abound. So it might follow logic that with virtual events, the legal issues would be far less. That logic is, unfortunately, not true. In fact, when groups enter the “virtual atmosphere” for their events, the legal issues can be many and unexpected. So what legal issues should groups focus on when planning and managing their next virtual event?


Copyrights are one of the primary types of intellectual property. Copyrights protect original works of authorship such as presentations, articles, software, songs, and pictures just to name a few. While often confused with trademarks (trademarks are a word, picture or symbol which identify a source – such as your organization’s name or logo), copyrights are very different. For those who create copyrighted works, United States law provides very favorable protection. The work of the copyright owner is automatically protected under copyright law from the moment it is created and owners are afforded a “bundle” of rights to do the following: reproduce work, prepare derivative works, publicly distribute copies, publicly perform, and publicly display the work.

When it comes to virtual events, just as it does with face to face meetings, organizations will heavily on speaker content to drive attendance. As such, it is important to ensure that the corresponding copyright issues have been addressed. Unless the speaker is an employee of the sponsoring organization (in which case the sponsoring organization owns the copyright to the work), the speaker owns the copyright to the presentation and all related materials. As such, the sponsoring organization must secure permission from the speaker to display and use the speaker’s oral presentation (via audio or videotape) as well as any written handouts, slides, etc. The legal term for getting permission for use of copyright is license. In order to be most effective, the license should be in writing and signed by the speaker. The license should also seek to secure as many of the “bundle” of rights as outlined above in case the sponsoring organization chose to expand its use of the speaker’s materials in the future, such as translating the speaker’s materials into Spanish (which would be considered to be a derivative work).

When the speaker’s material is displayed on the virtual events website, it should be displayed with the appropriate copyright notice such as the following:

“©Copyright 2012. Susie Speaker –
Nowhere, Land, U.S.A.
All rights reserved.”

It is also important the people who attend and use the virtual event acknowledge that the materials included in the virtual event are owned by others and that they may not reproduce or forward the materials to anyone else without the prior written consent of the copyright owner.


We have all heard the saying, “There’s an app for that,” to refer to just about anything from Angry Birds to airline flight trackers. But many organizations are creating apps for their own meeting – both face to face and virtual. Here again, many copyright issues are raised as a result since these apps are original works of authorship and thereby protected by copyright law. Often, the apps are created by outside vendors. As such, the vendor will own the copyright to the meeting app unless it assigns or transfers its rights in the work to the sponsoring organization. Upon transfer, the sponsoring organization would own the “bundle of rights” to the work. If the vendor is unwilling to transfer copyright ownership to the work (it may want to retain its copyright ownership so that it can reuse the work for another group), the sponsoring organization will need to secure a license as noted above. In either instance, it is important that the agreement between the sponsoring organization and the vendor be noted in writing.

The agreement should also address the functionality of the app and the right of the sponsoring organization to have any functionality problems with the app corrected immediately. Finally, the agreement should also address any confidential information the vendor may collect (such as names and address of meeting attendees) and ensure that the vendor will not use or forward this information to any other party.


With any activity, including virtual events, there is the possibility of liability due to the negligence or wrongdoing of another. In the case of virtual events, there is the possibility that the sponsoring organization could be brought into a lawsuit relating to copyright infringement or defamation, among other things. For example, if a speaker used someone else’s copyrighted work in their presentation without that person’s permission, such use would constitute copyright infringement and the sponsoring organization could be sued as a result of displaying the materials as part of its virtual event. Given this risk, indemnification provisions should be included in every contract relating to virtual events and meeting apps. The essence of indemnification is that the person or company takes financial responsibility for their actions – if they have done something wrong and the sponsoring organization gets sued as a result, it will hold the sponsoring organization harmless, i.e., they will not be harmed from a financial standpoint, as a result of the wrongful act. The indemnifying party will be required to hire legal counsel to defend the lawsuit on behalf of the sponsoring organization and to have any damages awarded against it paid by the indemnifying party.


As with any type of meeting-related activity, it is important to ensure that the sponsoring organization has appropriate insurance coverage in place to protect itself from any possible risk. Typically, the sponsoring organization’s comprehensive general liability insurance should cover claims such as those for copyright infringement and defamation but it is important to check the policy. In other instances the sponsoring organization will need to secure publisher’s liability insurance to protect itself from claims involving virtual events. And it is also important that when working with any vendor, the sponsoring organization verifies that such vendors have their own insurance coverage in place to protect them against the vendor’s wrongful actions.


In summary, while the legal issues involved many differ, virtual events can be as risky as face to face meetings. But with proper planning, sponsoring organizations can ensure they have addressed these legal issues in a proper manner so as to prevent liability to the organization.


Barbara Dunn is an attorney and partner with the law firm of Howe & Hutton, Ltd. She can be reached at [email protected] com or (636) 256-3351.

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