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Copyright Basics

What are the basics of copyright in Canada?

  • What does “copyright” mean?
    In the most basic sense “copyright” in a work means “the right to copy” that work. Only the copyright holder can reproduce the work or grant permission for others to do so.
  • What are the legal rights protected by copyright?
    The copyright holder has legally protected economic and moral rights. Their economic right gives the copyright holder the right to receive payment for use of their work. Their moral rights gives the copyright holder the right to protect how their work is used.
  • When does copyright start?
    Copyright in Canada automatically exists upon the creation of a work.
  • What is considered original work?
    The work must be original in order for copyright protection to exist. Originality is basically the way ideas are expressed by a creator. Ideas and data alone cannot be copyrighted. However, data formatted in various ways, into a database, a graph or dataset can be copyrighted.
  • What kind of material is protected by copyright?
    Copyright protected works a wide range of original material including but not limited to works in print, photographs, music, films, digital media, artwork, performances and software programs.
  • Does work have to be published?
    Copyright covers both published and unpublished work.
  • Who can hold copyright?
    In general a copyright holder can be the creator of the work, a corporation, institution, or a government.
  • How long does copyright last in Canada? In general, copyright duration in Canada is the creator of the works lifetime, plus 70 years from the end of the calendar year that the creator died.
  • What is fair dealing?
    Fair dealing is an exception in the Canadian Copyright Act which allows you to use other people’s material for the purpose of research, private study, criticism, review or news reporting, education, and satire or parody without having to seek permissions.What is “fair” will depend on the circumstances.  The courts will normally consider these six factors:

    • The purpose of the dealing – Was the use for commercial or research / educational purposes?
    • The amount of the dealing – How much was copied?
    • The character of the dealing – Was it a single use or ongoing? How widely was it distributed?
    • Alternatives to the dealing – How essential was the use of the work? Could the purpose have been achieved without using the work?
    • The nature of the work – Was there public interest involved? Was it previously unpublished?
    • The effect of the dealing on the original work – Did the use impact on the market value or sale of the original work?

    For details on limits and nature of copying permitted under fair dealing in certain contexts, please see the Toronto Metropolitan University Fair Dealing Guideline.

  • What is public domain?
    A work that is in the public domain is not subject to copyright restrictions. This includes works where copyright has expired, works that are ineligible for copyright and works whose creator has waived copyright. No permission whatsoever is needed to copy or use public domain works. The majority of material found on the Internet is NOT in the public domain, even if it is publicly viewable. Examples of works in the public domain:

    • Out-of-print editions of materials published in Canada by an author who has been dead for more than fifty years.
    • Photographs taken in Canada in 1949 and earlier by a photographer or a corporation, as these lapsed into the public domain prior to Canadian copyright changes in 1998.
    • Most U.S. Government created publications and photos are ineligible for copyright protection and are automatically released into the public domain.
    • Government of Canada and most Canadian Provincial government records and photographs that have been published for more than 50 years (although some Crown rights may be reserved.)

    For more information see the: Canadian Public Domain Flowchart


    Please note that while copyright on a work may have expired, new versions of the same work (translations, re-edited and annotated versions) may not be in the public domain. For example, newly edited versions of Shakespeare are not in the public domain. For example, the original version of the Riverside Shakespeare (first published in 1868) is in public domain. But the updated version of Riverside Shakespeare with a different editor, updated text and annotations, published in 1974, and since then updated, may not be public domain if it greatly differs from the 1868 edition. Another example would be a newly translated version of Plato’s Republic. Even though the work was published more than 2000 years ago, the new translation from the original Greek would be copyright of the translator.

    Age is not always a factor in public domain status of a work. Property rights can also play a part. For example, a book, photo or painting may be old enough to pass the criteria of being in the public domain but only exist in the collection of a particular institution. That institution can exert permission for re-use based on their physical ownership of that item. For example they may not release the material to allow for  a reproduction until a licence to reuse the material has been signed.

Canada’s Copyright Act protects both creators/owners and users of copyrighted materials. Combining the fair dealing exceptions in the Act and licences with publishers, we can carry out our personal research and teaching with a measure of confidence that we are not infringing on copyright.

This resource “Copyright Basics” has been created by the Toronto Metropolitan University Libraries and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution International 4.0 License unless otherwise marked.