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Copyright for Library Staff: Copyright Basics

A copyright guide for NIC library staff to use as a reference

Copyright Basics

Copyright is the area of law which protects the fixed expression of ideas. Once an original idea has been expressed in a tangible way (for example by writing it down or recording it) it is automatically protected by Copyright. This allows the creator of a work to control how the work is used and who can profit from it. Copyright exists in books, articles, posters, manuals, graphs, CDs, DVDs, software, databases, websites, and many other formats. In Canada, copyright is automatic when a work is created and generally lasts for 50 years after the creator’s death. A copyright owner can choose to allow others to reproduce or adapt their work in a number of ways. They can give users permission when asked directly, they can make their work available under a license agreement, and they can label their work as ok to use, often by using a Creative Commons License.

What does this mean for the NIC library? We should be diligent when using material that we did not create ourselves and make sure we are not infringing on someone's copyright. Before you use an image, chart, graph, or music, you should first make sure that one of the following applies:

  • The material is in the public domain (the copyright has expired)
  • The material is being used under a license agreement that allows for your intended use 
  • The material has been labeled as ok to use or adapt, or has a Creative Commons License that permits your intended use
  • Your use of the material would fall under NIC's Fair Dealing policy
  • You have received permission from the copyright owner

The Copyright Act of Canada includes some exceptions that allow users to make copies of copyrighted material without permission or payment for the purpose of research, private study, education, satire, parody, criticism, review or news reporting. When making copies for one of these purposes you must also consider the amount you are copying, whether you are distributing the copy to others, and whether your copying might have a detrimental effect on potential sales of the original work. 

For example, the Libguides we create are intended to be educational for our users, however by making them available online we are distributing them widely, and the use would not be considered "fair". If we were to use the same material in a class presentation it might be considered fair, since we are not distributing it widely.

NIC has developed a Fair Dealing Policy that outlines how much copyrighted material may be copied and how it can be distributed. Please take the time to read the full policy, this summary is provided as a quick reference:

A short excerpt means:

  • Up to 10% of a copyright-protected work
  • One chapter of a book
  • a single article from a periodical
  • an entire artistic work (ie. a painting, photograph, diagram, map) from a copyright-protected work containing other artistic work
  • an entire newspaper article or page
  • an entire single poem or musical score from a copyright-protected work containing other poems or musical scores
  • an entire entry from an encyclopedia, annotated bibliography, dictionary, or similar reference work

These short excerpts may be used in the following ways:

  • a single copy can be made by or provided to staff and students for their personal research, private study, or education
  • a short excerpt may be used as a class handout
  • a short excerpt may be posted to a password-protected learning or course management system
  • a short excerpt may be included as part of a course pack 

Copyright does not last forever, it has an expiration date after which anyone is free to copy, publish, distribute, and adapt the work without needing permission to do so. In Canada copyright usually expires 50 years after the death of the author, however it is not always this easy to determine if material is public domain or not. Photographs were treated differently until recently, and the rules change if the material was created by an organization rather than an individual. Recent trade agreements mean that copyright in Canada is soon going to extend to 70 years after the death of the creator rather than 50.

This means that determining if a work is in the public domain isn't exactly cut and dry. A work that is very old is obvious (for example the works of Shakespeare), but for something created within the last 150 years or so you can use this flowchart to determine if the work is in the public domain: