Generally, if you want to use someone else’s work (such as text, music or a photograph) in a way that copyright exclusively reserves to the copyright owner (such as copying or uploading onto a website), you will need permission.
Note: Acknowledging creators is no substitute for permission - you still have to get permission from the copyright owners.
Getting permission in writing
It's recommended that you always obtain permission from the copyright owner in writing. Although a formal legal contract is not always necessary, it's sensible to at least exchange letters or emails. Keep copies of all your communications to and from the copyright owner, to ensure there is a record of the agreement. Do not rely on exchanges that are not stored in a permanent format, such as spoken agreements or chat logs.
Before contacting the copyright owner, check that your proposed use is not covered by a collective licence provided by a collecting society. See when permission isn't required below.
Your letter to the copyright owner should be reasonably detailed, to avoid any confusion. Matters to cover in the letter include:
- the date,
- the name and contact details of the copyright owner,
- a brief description of yourself and why you want to use the relevant work,
- detailed information about the work (or specific part of the work) that you want to use. Include ISBN numbers to identify editions of books, and URL links for works found on the Internet. Where possible, include page numbers, chapter titles, and/or quotations,
- a precise description of how you want to use the work, including which parts of the work. For example: How many copies you want to make, where you wish to perform the work and for which audience, how you wish to adapt the work; or how you propose to distribute the work (such as uploading it on your website, selling printed copies for profit),
- a request for confirmation that the person to whom the letter is addressed is the only copyright owner in relation to the work. You may also need to request information on any other copyright owner that you may need to contact,
- a request for permission to use the work as you have described,
- a request for any preference about how the work must be credited,
- a request for the copyright owner to respond to you by a nominated date. Give a reasonable time for your letter to be considered and a reply sent. Remember that the copyright owner is not obliged to reply to your letter or give permission to use the work,
- your contact details.
Obtaining permission to use copyright material is a matter of negotiation with the copyright owner. The copyright owner doesn't have to give you permission. They may refuse or only grant permission subject to certain limitations and conditions, including the payment of a fee. If you don’t have permission you can't legally use the work.
Creators have certain moral rights under the Copyright Act, which are separate and additional to other copyright rights. This generally obliges you to:
- attribute relevant creators,
- not falsely attribute them (for example, by failing to say that someone else has altered the work) and
- respect the integrity of the work (by not using it in a way that may damage the creator’s honour or reputation).
These are guidelines only. There may be additional issues that need to be addressed. If you are not sure, you may need to get legal advice.
For more information see moral and performers rights.
In some situations you don’t need permission to copy or communicate someone else’s material.
If you're using an insubstantial part
If you intend to only use part of a copyright work, there is no copyright issue unless you are using an important, distinctive or essential part. It depends on the circumstances of each case as to whether a part is so important that permission is needed to reproduce it. However, note that it is the quality of what is taken that matters, rather than the quantity. A very small part of a work can be considered substantial for the purposes of copyright infringement. You may need permission if you want to copy a small part of a poem or story, or a few bars from a song.
If the copyright has expired
You don’t need permission to use a work if the copyright has expired. See copyright duration to find out how long Copyright lasts.
If a Licence Agency or collective licence applies
If your organisation has a copyright licence with a copyright collective, it is possible that your intended use is covered under that licence. This means that you don’t need to get permission directly from the copyright owner. The following organisations are copyright collectives:
- Copyright Licensing New Zealand (CLNZ) - represents authors and publishers in providing licences to institutions that reproduce copyright material from books and journals.
- Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) - represents songwriters and music publishers in providing licences to broadcast and publicly perform music in public, such as in shops, restaurants and other businesses.
- Recorded Music NZ - represents artists and recording labels in providing licences to broadcast and publicly perform sound and video recordings.
- OneMusic - a joint initiative between APRA and Recorded Music NZ (previously PPNZ Music Licensing), offering a single music licence to businesses and organisations using music in public. A OneMusic licence covers the combined membership and repertoire of APRA and Recorded Music NZ.
- Screenrights - represents copyright owners in film, television and radio in providing licences for the use of film, television and radio works by educational institutions.
Check the terms of the licence to ensure it covers your proposed use. You'll need permission from the copyright owner if you want to use the work in a way that is outside the scope or purpose of the licence.
It's common to come across 'free licences', in particular where copyright works are made available on the internet. This is where the website says that you can use the relevant copyright work without needing to ask.
Ensure you read the terms to see if any conditions apply to the free licence. For example, individuals may have permission to use the work for non-commercial purposes, as long as the creator is properly credited. If you need a broader licence, or if you are in any doubt about what you are allowed to do, you should contact the copyright owner.
Don’t assume that all works on the Internet are available under free licences.
If you can’t identify or find the copyright owner
Generally, the fact that you can’t identify or find a copyright owner is no defence to a claim of copyright infringement.
The Copyright Act provides a defence if it is:
- not possible to ascertain the identity of an author of a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work after making reasonable inquiry and
- reasonable to assume that the copyright has expired or that the author died 50 years ago or more.
Sometimes when publishers and other copyright users are unable to contact a copyright owner, they make a commercial decision to go ahead and use the copyright material. They may determine that the benefits of using the work are greater than the risk of a copyright owner bringing legal action against them. Often they will include a 'good faith' notice stating that they were unable to find the copyright owner, but they are willing to pay the copyright owner a reasonable fee. However this does not give legal protection against infringement proceedings.