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What is copyright?

This section provides a general overview of current copyright legislation and the terminology often used when discussing copyright issues, such as 'work', 'author' and 'owner'.

On this page:

Overview of copyright legislation

Respect others' work – have your work respected

It is a basic principle of copyright that the expression of an idea in an original work is legally protected by copyright as soon as it becomes 'recorded in material form' (viewable by others).

In other words, write it down, draw, record, or film it, and the original material is automatically protected by copyright. The author does not have to register the work to claim copyright in New Zealand – the act of putting the idea into a fixed format establishes copyright.

Copyright legislation (the New Zealand Copyright Act) is one of the ways in which intellectual property is protected. Others include patent and trade mark legislation, but these differ from copyright in that they require registration for protection to be established.

The Copyright Act 1994 was developed in part, in order to fulfil New Zealand's obligations under international copyright conventions so that copyright works that are created in New Zealand are protected in most other countries, and copyright works that are created in most other countries are protected here.


The following words are commonly used when discussing copyright issues.


A "work" means an original work in which copyright subsists under the Copyright Act 1994. The different types of works that are protected by copyright are described here What types of work are protected by copyright?.


A "copy" means reproducing or recording the work in any material form, and includes, in relation to:

  • a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work, storing the work in any medium by any means;
  • an artistic work, marking a copy in 3 dimensions of a 2-dimensional work and making a copy in 2 dimensions of a 3-dimensional work;
  • a film, television broadcast or cable programme, making a photograph of a whole or a substantial part of any image forming part of the film, television broadcast or cable programme.


An "author" means the creator of the work. A work may have more than one author, in which case they are "joint authors".


An "owner" means the person or entity that owns copyright in the work.


A "user" means a person who wishes to or does one of the restricted acts in relation to a copyright work.


A "performance" means a live performance of a dramatic, musical, or literary work given in New Zealand or by a New Zealand citizen or resident.


For the purposes of this website, a "school" means a New Zealand primary or secondary school.

 library staff

For the purposes of this website, the terms 'librarian' and 'library staff' are interchangeable and refer to any staff who work in the library, regardless of qualifications.

What types of work are protected by copyright?

The following is a summary of the different types of works that copyright applies to.

Literary works

Any work that is written, spoken, or sung, provided it is recorded (in writing or otherwise) (such as the words of a book, poem, magazine or newspaper article, speech, song, computer program, table and compilation), that is not a dramatic work or a musical work (see Dramatic works below).

Dramatic works

Includes a dance or mime, and a scenario or script for a film.

Artistic works

These include:

  • a graphic work, being a painting, drawing, diagram, map, chart, plan, engraving, etching, lithograph, woodcut, print or similar work,
  • a photograph, sculpture, collage, or model, irrespective of artistic quality and
  • a work of architecture, being a building (any fixed structure), and any other work of artistic craftsmanship, irrespective of artistic quality.

Typographical works

The typographical arrangement of a published edition, being the layout of words and associated elements on a page of published works such as books, magazines, journals, newspapers, posters, and websites.

Musical works

A work consisting of music (ie, musical scores or sheet music), but not including any sound recordings or words intended to be spoken or sung with the music.

Sound recordings

A recording of sounds from which the sound may be reproduced (including recordings of the sound of musical and dramatic works).


A recording on any medium from which a moving image may be reproduced (including video and DVD).


A wireless transmission capable of being lawfully received by members of the public or for presentation to members of the public, including radio and television broadcasts but excluding the actual content of the broadcast (which is covered by combinations of other types of copyright listed above).

Cable programmes

An item included in a transmission over a telecommunication system for reception at two or more places (simultaneously or otherwise) in response to requests by different users or for presentation to the public (including "pay-per-view").

Who owns copyright?

Typically, the first owner of copyright in a work is the author or creator of the work.

However, if the author of the work made the work in the course of their employment, their employer will own copyright in the work (subject to an agreement to the contrary).

Similarly, in relation to photographs, computer programs, paintings, drawings, diagrams, maps, charts, plans, engravings, models, sculptures, films, or sound recordings, if the author was commissioned to make the work, the person who commissioned the work may own copyright in the work ( – subject to an agreement to the contrary).

What rights do owners have?

The Copyright Act 1994 gives copyright owners the exclusive right to prevent others from doing the following things with their copyright works:

  • copy their work
  • issue copies of their work to the public (whether by sale or otherwise)
  • perform, play, or show, their work in public
  • broadcast their work or include their work in a cable programme service
  • make an adaptation of their work
  • authorise another to do any one of these things.

Infringement of copyright

It is an infringement of copyright for any person to do any of these acts in relation to a copyright work, without permission from the owner of copyright in that work.

It is also an infringement of copyright to:
 import an infringing copy of a work into New Zealand without permission from the copyright owner, other than for private and domestic purposes, if:

  • in relation to sound recordings, films or computer programs, the importer had reason to believe or ought reasonably to have known that the imported item was an infringing copy, or
  • in relation to other works, the importer knew or had reason to believe that the imported item was an infringing copy.

How long does copyright protection last?

Literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works

In New Zealand, copyright in literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works expires 50 years after the end of the year in which the author dies, or if the work is computer generated, 50 years after the end of the year in which the work was made.

Note: A computer-generated work is one where the computer has itself provided the "creative input". An example of this is a Richter Scale drawing recording an earthquake. A work that is created on a word-processor is still considered to be created by the operator.

Film and sound recordings

For film and sound recordings, copyright expires 50 years after the end of the year the work is made, or made available to the public by an authorised act, whichever is the later.

Broadcasts and cable programmes

For broadcasts and cable programmes, copyright typically expires 50 years after the end of the year in which the work is first broadcast or included in a cable programme service.

Typographical arrangements of published editions

For typographical arrangements of published editions, copyright expires 25 years after the end of the year in which the edition is first published.

The period of copyright protection is longer in Europe and America (typically being 70 years after the end of the year in which the author dies).

What rights do authors have?

Under the Copyright Act, authors are granted "moral rights", which give the author of a work the right to:

  • be identified as the author of the work that they created, and
  • object to derogatory treatment of the work that they created.

Derogatory treatment

Derogatory treatment is the addition to, deletion from, alteration to, or adaptation of the work which is prejudicial to the author's honour or reputation.

Moral rights

Moral rights belong to the author or creator of the work, even if copyright is sold to another or copyright is initially owned by the author's employer or the person who commissioned the work.

Moral rights expire upon the death of the author of the work. They cannot be assigned to another. In addition, they must be asserted in order to be enforced.

What rights do performers have?

Under the Copyright Act, performers have been granted certain rights in their performances. Performers' rights expire 50 years from the end of the year when the work was first performed.

Infringement of a performer's rights

It may be an infringement of a performer's rights to:

  • copy a recording of a performance (other than for private or domestic use) with knowledge or reason to believe that the performer has not consented,
  • show or play the performance in public by means of a recording with knowledge or reason to believe that it is an illicit recording broadcast or include the performance in a cable programme service by means of a recording with knowledge or reason to believe that it is an illicit recording
  • import into New Zealand, (other than for private or domestic use), or possess, sell, let for hire or distribute illicit recordings with knowledge or reason to believe that the recordings are illicit.

What rights do users have?

The Copyright Act seeks to provide a balance between the interests of authors, owners and users of copyright material.

There are educational, library, research, and review exceptions in the Copyright Act that enable some limited use of copyright material for certain specified purposes without the need to gain special permission from the copyright owner/s or performers.

If these statutory exceptions to copyright infringement do not apply, you must obtain permission directly from the copyright owner or the organisation that represents the copyright owner, such as a publisher or a copyright licensing body or agency. Some of these licensing bodies run copyright licensing schemes.

What are cultural rights?

Using cultural material at school

Schools use words, pictures, songs, and symbols from many cultures, especially Māori cultural material, and often encourage students to bring in old family artefacts and photographs to school.

The key to the correct use of all cultural and historical material is respect.

While the material may be technically out of copyright, it is advisable to treat all such material as taonga – do not allow it to be made fun of – handle with care, comply with any requests or conditions accompanying the material, and put artefacts in a safe place.

Getting permission

It is advisable to obtain written permission from parents/guardians of students bringing artefacts to school. The permission should relate to how the material will be used within the school.

For material with wider connections (such as cultural songs and dances), discuss the use with members of the associated community, and gain permission from someone of kaumātua status (irrespective of the culture). Seek advice from your school kaumatua adviser about the use of tikanga Māori, especially as relating to regional/local forms and usage (such as of local versions of waiata, kapa haka, and myths).

An advantage of this approach is that you will often gain access to more material and more people who are willing to come to the school and talk about or demonstrate the material.

Copyright summary

Except in rare cases, where copyright in the work has expired, all works are protected by copyright.

You must therefore be certain that what you want to do with a work is permitted by the exceptions to copyright infringement within the Copyright Act, by a purchased licence, or by written authority from the copyright owner. If the material has been licensed with a Creative Commons licence this may give you some permissions, depending on the particular licence.