Copyright Basics FAQs

These FAQs are relevant for anyone with questions about how copyright works in Canada and at SFU, and will provide you with general information about the Canadian Copyright Act. You may also find our Copyright Basics video helpful.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a set of rights relating to the reproduction of works. Works include text, art, music, dramatic works and computer programs, as well as sound recordings, performances and communication signals.

Only the copyright holder can copy a work (or perform related actions including broadcasting, publishing, adapting or translating a work), or authorize others to do these things. The copyright holder is often the creator (e.g. author, artist, musician). However, copyright can be transferred, for example to a publisher, or held by someone else, such as an employer in the case of works created during employment.

Copyright is a form of intellectual property and is governed in Canada by the Copyright Act. The Copyright Act is intended to balance the protection of creators' and copyright holders' economic and moral rights with the right of users to use works for public benefit and to further creative endeavour.

In Canada, copyright protection happens automatically when a work is created, as long as the work is original, fixed (in a physical form) and created in Canada or in a country that is a member of the Berne Convention, Universal Copyright Convention or World Trade Organization (these three conventions cover almost every country in the world).

In Canada, there is no requirement that a work be registered or that the word "copyright," or the symbol ©, appear on the work. However, it is a good idea to use the universal symbol © on any works you create, as it serves as a reminder to others that the work is protected. Other countries may have different requirements and offer different protections from those in Canada.

What are the laws and rules relating to copyright at Simon Fraser University?

The Canadian Copyright Act, SFU copyright policies and various agreements and licenses entered into by the University with copyright owners and representative organizations cover the use of copyright materials at Simon Fraser University. The Copyright Act is the legislation in Canada that sets out what users can and can’t do with copyright protected materials. SFU's copyright policies describe how the university manages copyright and how copyright protected materials can be used for university teaching, learning, research and administration purposes. The University also has special agreements with copyright owners, such as subscriptions to electronic journals, which give you additional rights to certain content. 

In order to determine whether what you want to do is permitted, you need to check that you comply with any agreements or licenses covering the work in question and/or the Copyright Act and SFU policies. You should ask yourself:

  1. Does an agreement or license that the University library has with publishers or a public license such as a Creative Commons license cover the work in question? If so, is what I want to do permitted under those agreements or licenses? 
  2. If not, is what I want to do covered by the Copyright Act, either under the educational exceptions or under the fair dealing exception?  

If you’re not covered by any agreement or license or an exception under the Act, you’ll need to get permission for what you want to do from the copyright owner. 

What materials are protected by copyright?

Copyright protection exists as soon as a work is created in a fixed form. A fact or idea is not subject to copyright protection, but the expression of the fact or idea is protected. 

Copyright is a broad category that protects creators of:

  • Literary, dramatic, artistic, musical works (e.g. book, letter, e-mail, blog, computer program, compilation, government publication, script, play, film, painting, sculpture, photograph, map, architectural drawing, sheet music, compositions, music video, etc.)
  • Sound recording (e.g. lectures, animal sounds, nature sounds, music, audio book, etc.)
  • Performances (e.g. dancing, singing, acting, etc.)
  • Communication signals (e.g. pay-per-view, radio, satellite, broadcasts, etc.)

Multiple copyrights may exist within one work. For example, a musical work may consist of the song (lyrics and music) and the recording of the song. In this case, the song and the recording would be considered two different works and may be protected by copyright as a musical work and sound recording. The lyrics may also be categorized as a literary work. Additionally, a live performance of this song by an artist could also be protected as a performance.

Copyright in most types of works, when used in Canada, lasts for the life of the creator plus 50 years. After that time, copyright expires and the work enters the public domain; works no longer under copyright can be freely used in any way by anyone, without permission.

How do I know if something is protected by copyright?

Copyright protection arises automatically when a work is created and generally subsists for 50 years after the author’s death, though this can vary depending on the type of work and where you want to use it. Works protected by copyright include literary, dramatic, artistic and musical works; sound recordings; performances; and communication signals. After copyright expires, the work enters the public domain and can be used freely without the need for permission or payment.

In Canada, there is no requirement that the work be registered or that the word "copyright," or the symbol ©, appear on the work in order to be protected under the law.

When you want to use a particular work in Canada, the safest approach is to assume that the work is protected by copyright, unless there is a clear indication to the contrary or the author has been dead for at least 50 years. 

For more information about duration of copyright protection in Canada see the Government of Canada’s About Copyright publication and the Canadian Public Domain Flowchart.

What materials are NOT protected by copyright?

Some things are not protected by copyright. For example, copyright does not protect factual information or data, titles, short word combinations, names, characters, slogans, themes, plots, or ideas. These may be used or copied without permission or payment of royalties (unless they happen to be protected under trademark law).  

Similarly, materials in the public domain can be copied freely, either because copyright protection has expired or because the copyright owner has indicated general permission to make copies. If the latter is the case, make certain you comply with any constraints the owner may have indicated regarding reproduction of the material.

Who owns copyright in a work?

Usually, the creator of a work (e.g., one who writes a book, magazine or newspaper article, play, poem, song lyrics or other writings, takes a photograph or makes a film, draws a map, or creates a painting, drawing, or sketch) is the first owner of the copyright in that work. However, ownership of copyright may be transferred in some cases, for example to a publisher. Copyright also applies to other subject matter, including sound recordings, performances and communication signals. Owning a copy of a work (e.g. a DVD or a book) does not mean that you own copyright in that work. Additionally, if material was created in the course of employment - unless there is an agreement to the contrary - the employer owns the copyright. Similarly, if a work has been commissioned the copyright will belong to the person or entity that commissioned the work.

There are exceptions built into the Copyright Act which balance the copyright owner's interests with the public interest in allowing use of works for purposes like research and education, such as fair dealing.

What rights does a copyright owner have?

Copyright owners have the sole legal right to:

  • produce or reproduce the work
  • perform the work in public
  • publish the work
  • translate the work
  • adapt the work to another format (e.g. novel to film, film to play)
  • record a literary, dramatic or musical work
  • broadcast the work
  • exhibit an artistic work
  • rent out a computer program, or a recording of a musical work
  • sell a work in the form of a tangible object (in certain circumstances)
  • authorize others to do any of these acts

A copyright owner can license any or all of these rights to another entity (individual or organization) temporarily, or assign them to another entity permanently.

These rights are qualified by certain exceptions which balance the copyright owner’s interests with the public interest in allowing use of works for purposes such as education and research, such as fair dealing.

How long does copyright last?

Copyright does not last forever. The main purpose of copyright law is to allow for creators of works to be reasonably rewarded for their creative efforts. How long it lasts depends on which country you are in. In Canada, copyright generally lasts for the life of the author, plus 50 years (i.e., the "life plus 50" rule). By contrast, in the U.S. and Europe, copyright generally lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years, though it can differ depending on factors such as the type of work, the manner of publication and the date of creation. Use of a work in Canada is governed by the Canadian rules for the duration of copyright protection. 

For example, in Canada, if a work is created on April 30, 1999, and the author dies on July 27, 2035, then copyright protection extends from April 30, 1999 to December 31, 2085. If the work was created by more than one person, copyright protection exists for the life of the creator who dies last, the remainder of the calendar year in which that person dies, plus 50 additional years. Some types of works such as sound recordings and some photographs and films may have a different length of copyright term. Both economic rights and moral rights subsist for the same period of time. 

After copyright expires, a work becomes part of the public domain and may be freely copied and distributed. However, do not assume that works are in the public domain.

Federal and provincial government documents are under Crown copyright. Crown copyright lasts for 50 years after the date of publication. Therefore, a government document published in 1998 is under crown copyright until December 31, 2048. More information on using federal government materials that are still under crown copyright can be found at About Crown Copyright.

If a work does not have a copyright notice (or © symbol), is it protected by copyright?

Most likely. Copyright protection exists as soon as a work is created. Under Canadian copyright law, the work does not need to be registered and the symbol © is not required to appear on the work. There may not even be any reference to copyright protection. It is possible for the work to be registered under a voluntary government registration system, such as with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO). Other countries have different laws and regulations, which govern copyright protection, but most countries offer similar protection in line with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaties and conventions. Works created in most other countries are protected in Canada under Canadian copyright law.

What is the “public domain” and can I copy works from the public domain freely?

Copyright does not last forever. The main purpose of copyright law is to allow for creators of works to be reasonably rewarded for their creative efforts. To that end, there are statutory rules to determine when copyright protection of a work comes to an end (e.g., the "life plus 50” rule). When the term of copyright expires, the work is said to come into the "public domain" and is then available for anyone to use and copy without seeking permission from the copyright owner (the author retains no rights in the work). This is the reason that Emily Carr's paintings and Stephen Leacock's writings no longer are protected by copyright. 

Although the copyright in Shakespeare’s plays expired long ago, many of the published editions of his plays contain added original materials (such as footnotes, prefaces etc.), which are copyright protected because the authors have used skill and judgment in creating the new material. This creates a new copyright in the added original material, but not in the underlying text of the original work in which the copyright had expired. 

Don’t assume that everything you find on the Internet is in the public domain just because it is publicly available. Most of the material you find online is protected by copyright; however, you may be able to use it for educational purposes because fair dealing or the exception for educational use of material publicly available through the Internet will cover many uses related to teaching. See the FAQs under Instructors – Using copyright protected material from the Internet for further information about using material found on websites. 

Works can also be in the public domain because the work was either not eligible for copyright protection in the first place or the copyright owner has given copyright in the work to the public. Some copyright owners have made clear declarations that uses of their copyright works may be made without permission or payment. Such a declaration may be found on the work itself or the website where it is found. The Reproduction of Federal Law Order, for example, permits anyone, without charge or request for permission, to reproduce Canadian laws and decisions of federally constituted courts and administrative tribunals in Canada. However, restrictions can be placed on the uses that can be made of works and, in this case, you must be sure to use the material accordingly. 

Project Gutenberg is a good resource for finding literary works in the public domain. See the Instructors' resources for more suggestions about how to locate works in the public domain.

For more information about duration of copyright protection in Canada see the Government of Canada’s About Copyright publication and the Canadian Public Domain Flowchart (by the Copyright Office at the University of Alberta (2020), licensed CC BY).

What are moral rights and what do they have to do with copyright?

Separate from economic rights, the creator of a copyright protected work is also entitled to moral rights, which include the right of paternity (to claim authorship, remain anonymous or adopt a pseudonym); the right of integrity (to prevent distortion, modification or mutilation of a work); and the right of association (to control activities associated with a work). 

Even if a creator has assigned his or her copyright in a work to another entity, the creator would continue to hold the moral rights to the work. Moral rights can be waived or bequeathed but cannot be assigned (transferred).

How do I get permission to use someone else’s work?

You ask. If your use is not permitted by a license, or one of the exceptions in the Copyright Act, you will need to ask for permission. The permission must come from the copyright owner so the first step is to identify who the copyright owner is and whether there is an organization that represents the owner. For published works, such as books and journal articles, the publisher or journal is usually the best place to start - they likely own copyright, or they can direct you to the correct rightsholder.

There are a number of copyright collectives which can give you permission (in the form of a license) on behalf of the copyright owner to use their work. So, for example, if you want to use music and your use does not fall within any of the Copyright Act’s exceptions, you may be able to obtain permission from copyright collectives such as SOCAN, Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency (CMRRA) or Re:Sound that administer copyright in music. 

But if the copyright owner is easily identifiable and locatable, it can sometimes be easier to contact them directly as many copyright owners will give permission to academic users without requiring payment. Usually you will be able to identify the owner somewhere on the work by looking for the copyright symbol ©, which should have the copyright owner’s name next to it. You will often find this at the beginning of a book, at the side of a photograph or at the bottom of a webpage. Once you’ve located the owner, simply email or write to them, explaining how and why you want to use the work and requesting permission. The permission should be in writing, though an email will suffice. It is not advisable to rely on verbal permission because there is no documentary evidence to prove what was agreed to between you and the copyright owner. You should also keep a record of who gave the permission, what was permitted, the date, and how to contact the person who gave the permission. Leave plenty of time for this process, since you can't control how quickly the copyright owner might respond.

Remember that copyright owners have the right to say no, charge a fee or impose conditions on the use of their work.

Feel free to contact the Copyright Office ( with any questions you might have about obtaining copyright permissions.