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What is copyright?

Have you ever wondered about copyright of the taonga in your collection and whether you can share their images? Learn more in this article.

Copyright is the term used to describe an intellectual property right. Intellectual property is anything or any item that has been created by people’s thoughts. Intellectual property rights describe who has ownership of and control over the thing(s). Copyright does not apply to an idea, but it does apply to the material expression of an idea. Different countries have different copyright laws.

In culture and heritage contexts there are many different types of items that can be covered by copyright. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Texts – books, articles, letters, reports, documents
  • Visual items – drawings, diagrams, maps, paintings, prints, photographs
  • 3D objects – sculptures, ceramics, carvings, jewellery, clothing, taonga or cultural treasures, tools
  • Audio visual items – music, film, video, oral histories.

Although the ownership of copyright usually stays with the author of the item, or the person who commissioned the item, or the employer of the author, this is not always the case. When an item is sold, the copyright may stay with the creator or it can be transferred to the new owner. So it is useful to bear in mind that the ownership of copyright can exist separately from the ownership of the item. Copyright can be commercially valuable and it can be sold or bequeathed. When someone seeks permission to copy something from the copyright owner a fee is usually required in recognition of the permission, but in some cases this fee may be waived.

Culture and heritage sites often do not own the copyright for items in their collections. As such, if staff, or anyone else, wishes to copy an item, permission must be obtained from the copyright holder. Culture and heritage organisations have a custodial responsibility to protect copyright.

What is copying?

Copyright exists to protect original items from being copied without permission. Copying something can be understood as reproducing or recording an item in any material form. This could include: Data stored in a computer memory, audio or visual recordings, photocopies, photographs, prints, digital images. It is worth noting that the entire item does not need to be copied for a breach of copyright to occur. If a substantial part of an item is copied in any material form then copyright is breached. Copying an item and making an adaption to it also requires copyright permission.

Copyright exists for different amounts of time depending on the category of the item, the copyright law at the time, and the jurisdiction of the county in which the copying occurs. For this reason, it is advisable to refer to the most recent version of the copyright law at all times.

For example in New Zealand as of 1 January 2013, all photographs taken before 1944 have been deemed to be out of copyright.

Some indigenous cultures assert group ownership of intellectual property rights in knowledge or the expression of thought which has been passed down through generations. In Aotearoa New Zealand, Mātauranga Māori is one example of this.

Mātauranga Māori is a term used to describe knowledge founded on tikanga Māori, or Māori customs and protocols. While the Aotearoa New Zealand Copyright Act 1994 encompasses items produced by Māori that remain in copyright, there is currently no provision for the protection of Mātauranga Māori. However a claim has been lodged with the Waitangi Tribunal concerning indigenous flora and fauna and cultural and intellectual property (WAI262). In July 2012 the Waitangi Tribunal released its report regarding this claim, and it recommended the reform of New Zealand laws to recognise the place of Mātauranga Māori. At the time of writing a whole government review which focuses on consultation with Māori, is being undertaken to ascertain the extent to which law reform is required to support the projection of Mātauranga Māori. As such staff at culture and heritage organisations are advised to be extremely cautious when wishing to copy anything that may relate to Mātauranga Māori, and to always seek permission from the appropriate iwi | tribe, hapū | subtribe, and whānau | family.

As an educator working in a culture or heritage organisation, you may wish to copy any item and use it for educational purposes. For example to reproduce an image of an item in an online learning resource, or to film an item as part of a virtual learning programme. No matter why you wish to copy the item you need to find out who owns the copyright, and seek permission from them before using it. It is possible that photographs and videos of general scenes within the organisation where you work may be permitted, if copyright items appear only partially, momentarily and incidentally in the background of a shot, but this should always be checked.

When you wish to use an item that is protected by copyright, you will need to ask the copyright owner for a licence to use that work. A collection manager, a rights manager, a curator or an exhibition manager within your museum or gallery should be able to provide you with information about who the copyright owner is for any item. They may already know what the copyright status of the item is, and they may also know what reuse is permitted. They may be able to assist you if you need to make a copyright request, or they may offer to make it on your behalf. If granted, a copyright licence will usually specify the ways in which the item can be used and any fees that need to be paid to the copyright holder. A copyright holder is under no obligation to grant permission to use the item. In New Zealand there are a number of organisations representing copyright holders that can licence copyright works on their behalf:

Information about the concept of Mana Taonga:

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