‘What if I share my writing with someone else? What happens if they steal my idea?’
I get asked this all this time. It's natural for writers to be protective of their work.
But are these writers’ concerns warranted?
And what if you want to use song lyrics in your writing? Or you want to use a quote from someone long passed away that you found on a quote website? Can you?
There are laws governing copyright and permissions in New Zealand. These are similar to laws in other countries, though there are slight differences, so it pays to know what applies here. Therefore, be careful to only read information on copyright from websites that are applicable to New Zealand.
Before I start, just a note that this blog is not a substitute for legal advice. It is designed as a quick reference. And laws can change, so it is important to check. For more detail, see the New Zealand Intellectual Property Office website or consult a copyright lawyer.
Is my writing copyrighted? When? How?
The good news is that your writing is copyrighted automatically from the minute you write it, either on paper or digitally.
There isn’t a copyright register in New Zealand, and you don’t have to do anything specific for your writing to be covered by New Zealand copyright laws.
However, you can do a few things to help protect your work.
What isn’t protected?
Copyright laws protect how ideas and information are written – the words used – but they don’t protect the actual ideas or information. That means that if you write a book, no one can use the exact words, but they could copy the plot line or ideas.
Similarly, if are writing a cookbook and you use a recipe from another cookbook word-for-word without permission, then that is an infringement of copyright, but if you include a similar recipe with your own wording, then it may not be considered an infringement. However, this is a very grey area and should be checked with a copyright lawyer. Don’t use a recipe from someone else and just change the wording slightly, as this may get you into hot water. [Sorry, couldn’t resist!]
Small works such as headlines, titles and names are usually not protected by copyright. But other short works such as a short poem or jingle may be.
The moral of this story is to always check with a lawyer or ask permission if you are copying anything from someone else. I will go into how and when to ask permission in more detail below.
How long does copyright last?
Different types of creative works have different time limits on copyright. In New Zealand, the following time periods apply to writers.
Who owns the copyright? Can I pass it on to someone else?
Usually, the person who created the work is the owner of the copyright. However, if you were commissioned or employed to create a work, then the person or company who commissioned or employed you is the owner.
If you own the copyright, you can sell it to another entity, such as a publisher. You would then relinquish control of who will receive permission to use the work – the new owner will grant permission. Make sure you check any contracts involving copyright with a lawyer before signing.
What are moral rights?
Writers have some rights over their work even if the copyright or work is owned by someone else.
Moral rights include the following:
Moral rights can’t be sold.
The right against false attribution can be enforced the author’s representative after their death and expires 20 years from the end of the calendar year in which the writer dies.
The rights of attribution and objection to derogatory treatment of the work last as long as the copyright.
Is my writing protected overseas?
New Zealand is part of several international agreements for copyright. This means that anything that is automatically under copyright in New Zealand is also copyright protected in the countries that are also part of the agreement, without a requirement for registration.
Here is a list of all the countries that are part of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works 1928, which guarantees copyright in the countries on the list. It means that if a work that is created in one country, and it is also distributed in another country covered by the Berne Convention, it is then covered by the copyright laws of that other country. That is, the law of the country where the work is being used determines the rules surrounding copyright.
If you are uploading your book to an international publishing platform or are distributing your book overseas, it may be useful to understand the international rules surrounding copyright for the regions where you book will be distributed.
When do I have to ask for permission to use someone’s work in my book?
Whenever you use part of someone’s work you will need to consider whether you need to request permission or if acknowledgement by referencing is enough.
If you want to use ‘a substantial part’ of someone else’s work, you will need to ask for permission. Just acknowledging or referencing it is not enough. Remember, there is no set guideline to how much a substantial part is. And it’s quality over quantity. That is, if a small part of the work is a big part of the idea, then it will infringe copyright.
See below for some exceptions to this.
You should ask for permission in writing, and keep all records. The copyright holder may have certain conditions of granting permission, such as how their permission is acknowledged within your work. They do not have to give permission, or may only give restricted permission. They may also charge a fee.
When do I not have to ask permission to use someone else’s work?
When you are using less than a substantial part of a work, you don’t need to ask permission. But this is calculated differently for different types of work. And nowhere is it defined what a substantial part of a work is. However, no matter how small, you will still need to reference or acknowledge any part of a work used.
You will most likely be fine to quote a single line from a work to support your argument, but if you are quoting more, then you will need to ask permission.
You don’t have to ask permission if copyright has expired. The work then becomes ‘in the public domain’, though it may be polite to anyway. If the writing is republished, then the new publisher will own copyright over the typographical layout of that edition, but anyone can reproduce the content. Make sure you check this carefully.
Free licences are used on some websites which give permission to use work without seeking permission, such as on some free image websites. However, there may be other conditions such as proper crediting and that it’s for non-commercial use only, so make sure you check these conditions carefully. An example of this is the image at the top of this blog. The only requirement of using an image from the Unsplash image website is to copy and paste the acknowledgement, which I have done below.
Be careful when taking images from the internet, and ensure you find the correct owner of the copyright. An image found through Google or other search engines doesn’t mean it’s free to use. Make sure you click through to the website the image is from and ask permission if it’s not under free licence.
In some cases you can make a copy of an original without permission, but you still need to acknowledge the source.
This is only in the case where your work is for
This is called fair dealing. In these four cases, the amount copied must be deemed ‘fair’; that is, not more than you need for the work.
There are differences in international laws on what is deemed ‘fair’. New Zealand doesn’t have a ‘fair use’ defence such as in the US. And there is no exception for parody or satire use in New Zealand as there is in other countries.
What about song lyrics?
This is a common question. Often a song lyric is used in fiction by a character to evoke certain feelings, or in non-fiction as a quote or epigraph.
A title of a song or album is not under copyright, but the lyrics are. As it’s difficult to establish what less than a substantial part is, it’s recommended to always ask permission to use song lyrics, especially when your use is commercial. This is notoriously difficult and can get expensive, as one journalist found out when researching for his book. Song lyrics are often owned by the music producer, not the creator.
What about old quotes in new books?
If an old work, such as Shakespeare, has been reproduced in a book that is still within copyright, then the typography and layout and accompanying notes will be under copyright law. You will need to seek permission to use parts of this work as is. However, Shakespeare’s actual writing is now under public domain so can be used in a new format.
How to ask permission?
You will need to find out who owns the copyright of the book. It’s often written on the work, or you can check with the publisher or licensing agencies.
You should always seek permission in writing to prevent confusion later.
You should include
You may not get a reply, and you may not get permission. In this case, you cannot use the work.
What happens if someone uses part or all of my book without permission?
If you think someone has infringed your copyright, it’s best to get legal advice first to make sure this is actually the case. A copyright lawyer will be able to help you with the process and advise on your legal rights.
If your copyright is being managed by an agency, then you should notify them immediately as they will be able to assist.
If you have written a book and this all sounds too overwhelming, I can help.
I am a copy-editor and proofreader based in New Zealand. My business, Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, caters to all writers of non-fiction books. I can discuss with you where your book is at and what you need to do next.
For more information on how I can help you make your book shine, please contact me.
I would love to hear from you.
For more detailed information on copyright in New Zealand and some useful websites, please see the following websites:
Marja Stack is a copy-editor and proofreader based in New Zealand. She is the owner of Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, which caters to all writers of non-fiction books, business publications and cookbooks. For more information or enquiries for how she can help you make your book shine, please see her website:
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