The Art of Copyright

Here at the Museum we have been very busy working behind the scenes ahead of the much anticipated opening later this year. I have been working with the Access Team, on a student scholarship from Victoria University over the summer. My job is to find copyright owners for works that we hold in our collection and ask them for copyright permission. Having written permission lets us reproduce images of works for the marketing of upcoming exhibitions as well as online. Copyright can be a confusing notion for many people, so I have written a short guide to what it is and why it is important for a Museum.

What is copyright exactly?

Copyright is a legal concept and generally means “the right to copy”. By granting someone copyright permission, you are letting them copy something for a specific purpose. New Zealand has its own copyright legislation, the Copyright Act of 1994. Protecting copyright in original work is important and is put in place to protect intellectual property rights for artists, musicians and authors.

Copyright arises automatically as soon as a tangible literary, musical or artistic work is created. Ownership of the work and ownership of the copyright in a work exist separately from each other. Copyright can also be sold or bequeathed and is commercially viable. The person who first created the work, (which the Copyright Act refers to as the author) generally owns the copyright, unless it is a commission.

Copyright exists for the lifetime of the author and then a further 50 years after their death under New Zealand law or 70 years in countries such as the United States and United Kingdom law. Once the author has died their copyright ownership is automatically passed down to their next of kin or a nominee can be appointed. For example, if an artist painted a work in New Zealand in 1955 and died in 2012 then copyright on that work expires at the end of the calendar year of 2062.

The New Suburb, Roy Cowan, collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 2011/48

Why does the Museum need permission to copy work that it owns?

As a museum and art gallery we are constantly reproducing images of works within our collection for internal use or for marketing purposes. Although it seems harmless, reproducing images for any of these purposes infringes the copyright owner’s rights. In order to reproduce images of objects that are still in copyright we must legally gain copyright permission as failure to do so can result in fines or legal action.

Luckily, as a Museum we hold a lot of ancient treasures in our collection and the majority of these objects are out of copyright. More importantly, all photographs taken before 1944 are also deemed to be out of copyright, which makes my job much easier. I have included images of works in this blog which we have gained copyright permission for already for you to enjoy.

Maungatoruto, 1936, Felix Kelly, collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 2009/16/2

How do you find the copyright owner?

Many of our objects that are under copyright are made by well-known local artists, and sometimes it can be as simple as looking them up in the phone book. Once found, we contact them to gain permission for a copyright licence. On the other hand, finding families of artists who are deceased can involve a great deal of detective work to track down. Some works may have an unknown author and the Museum must legally make a reasonable enquiry into finding the copyright owner before we reproduce any images of orphan works.

So far we have managed to track down a number of families of artists who have passed away, whose work we hold in our collection. One in particular is the potter, Olive Jones, who along with Elizabeth Matheson demonstrated and sold work at the New Zealand Centennial in 1939-40. She never married and lived with her sister in Auckland, until her death in 1982. We hold a few of her works in our collection and they are included in our opening exhibitions, alongside works from her contemporaries, Briar Gardner and Elizabeth Matheson. Due to lack of copyright permission we have never been able to reproduce images of the works before.

Pottery Ashtray, c.1940, Olive Jones, collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 98/49/1

Fortunately, our volunteer and avid genealogist, Carol Dacey, found a contact for Olive’s nephew who was delighted to hear that Olive’s work would be exhibited and was more than happy to grant permission for copyright on behalf of the family. He has nostalgic memories of growing up next door to Olive and as a young boy watching her throw pots in her studio. He was very fond of a particular glaze she used on her works, one that was painted on green but turned a brilliant copper colour once fired. Recollections such as this add more depth to the objects and having permission to share them with the public makes the copyright research even more rewarding.

Sarah Powell
Copyright Researcher
February 2013

Disclaimer: This blog is made purely with the intentions of explaining NZ copyright legislation. If you require further advice please consult a lawyer.


4 thoughts on “The Art of Copyright

  1. Congratulations on an easy to follow explanation. My only question, who deemed pre 1944 photographs out of copyright? I dont think that is correct.

    • Thanks for your comment Dudley. The legislation for the duration of copyright was amended in the NZ Copyright Act of 1994 from the 1962 Act, so it can get quite confusing. Basically the NZ Copyright Act of 1962 stated that copyright existed in photographs until 50 years from the date of creation. The amended NZ Copyright Act of 1994 changed the copyright duration for photographs to exist for 50 years from the year of the Author’s death, but only applied this to photographs taken after 1 January 1995. We have referred to the DigitalNZ guidelines and flowcharts for advice in this instance, which may be of use to you also.

      • Thanks for your answer. My discussions with lawyers indicates that a photograph taken pre 1944 may be considered a piece of art especially if an ‘artist’ used the medium and thus be treated the same as one of the said artists’ paintings; therefore 50 years after death.
        We won’t go into the right to charge reproduction fees?!

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