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What is copyright?

Copyright is a kind of intellectual property, sitting alongside patents, trademarks and designs. It is more properly thought of as a set of rights granted to the copyright holder(s) in relation to something he/she has created. Here are some of the key points about copyright in New Zealand:

  • Copyright is automatic: there is no need to register copyright (in fact you can't) or include the copyright symbol. The creator of a work has an automatic right to the copyright in that work.
  • Copyright holders have the exclusive right to copy, publish, perform, share, distribute or adapt a work. But there is provision for others to use works in certain ways without seeking the copyright holder's permission (see fair dealing).
  • As a kind of property it can be bought, sold, transferred, passed on by estate or given away.
  • There can be copyright in literary, dramatic, artistic or musical works; in sound recordings, video, or 'communication works' (includes TV/radio broadcasts, internet transmissions); in sculpture or buildings; even in a layout or typographical arrangements (e.g. an edition of a Shakespeare play would have copyright in the typographical arrangement and editorial additions, but not in Shakespeare's words themselves).
  • To be copyrightable, a work must be original, involving some independent skill, labour or judgement on the part of the creator. An exact reproduction of a work (e.g. scanning an out-of-copyright novel) would not create a new copyright work; however, taking the same novel and designing a new layout of the text and adding notes to the text would confer copyright on those elements.
  • There can be multiple copyrights in a single work. For example: a film might have separate copyright in the screenplay, the images, the music etc.; a textbook might have separate copyright in text, images, data etc.
  • Copyright expires. For most types of work copyright lasts in New Zealand for 50 years after the year in which the creator of a work died (25 years if this is copyright in a typographical layout, as in the Shakespeare example above). Copyright expires 70 years after the death of the creator in many other countries in the world. When copyright expires, works pass into the public domain.
  • Public domain: generally speaking a work is in the public domain if it is 'free' in the sense that it is not owned by somebody, such as the works of Dickens, Newton's formulae or the copyright symbol itself. Remember, though, that while the works written by Shakespeare, for example, are not in copyright, there may be copyright in a published edition of a work, such as in the layout or notes accompanying the text. Works can also be passed into the public domain by a creator. Copyright does also expire as explained above.
  • If you do something on commission or as part of your employment then the standard situation is that the commissioner or employer owns the copyright in that thing. This is not necessarily the case for Otago staff -- see staff as creators of copyright material.
  • The Copyright Act 1994 governs copyright in New Zealand, of which the most relevant sections for people working in the tertiary sector are s42 Criticism, review, and news reporting, s43 Research or private study, s44-49 Education, and s50-57 Libraries and archives.
  • The creator of a work has a moral right granted by law to be identified as such, as well as the right to object to modification without permission, derogatory treatment or false claim of ownership of that work.
  • The 'standard rules' for copyright, as set out by the Act and case law, can always be altered by the terms of a contract. A contract with a publisher will set out in detail what rights are held by the author and what rights are transferred to the publisher. Web sites usually have a 'Terms of Use' page that sets out what you can and can't do with that material.

For more information on copyright in New Zealand check out the web site of Copyright Licensing New Zealand, which includes many excellent information sheets about various aspects of copyright.

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