Want to use another person’s writing or image? Get their permission. This is a safe standpoint for just about every instance. The creator owns copyright on their creation unless they have “sold” that right to their boss (as in the case of employee’s work or work for hire), their publisher (through a contract), or their heirs (as is the case for some celebrities’ works).
Laws vary depending on the country the creator was in and what country you are in. In this Canadian, Eh? column we are discussing Canadian copyright laws, which are heavily descriptive and open to interpretation (by the courts, at great expense). We’ve talked about some of the surprising changes to these laws before.
Common myths are addressed in the latest edition of Editing Canadian English (ECE3), including the idea that if you can find it free online, it is free to use, and that you don’t need permission if it’s only a small portion.
There are fair dealing exemptions to the need to ask permission. News reporting, critique, and parody are allowed without permission, for example. Several universities have put together fair dealing tools that their staff and faculty can use to check whether they need permission to quote materials (and that includes images).
Education isn’t an exception either. The specifics usually referred to as “education” are research and personal study. So textbooks must and do seek permission for everything quoted in them. Strictly speaking, academic papers should get permission too—even the theses.
How Long Copyright Lasts
Fifty years after the (last) creator dies, Canadian copyright expires and works enter the public domain. That means you don’t need permission unless (UNLESS!) the copyright has been assigned to the employer, a company, or the heirs/ estate, as mentioned before. At this time, copyright cannot be renewed in Canada, ECE3 says in section 10.3.
If the work will be distributed outside of Canada, ECE3 advises that you follow the laws of the most restrictive territory in the global market.
Anonymous materials and those produced by the Crown are copyrighted for 50 years after the year of publication.
There are a dozen more specific variations, so you’ll want to read them yourself.
So how do you get permission? Ask. A surprising number of creators will grant permission for free. Others will ask to be paid to use their creation. Start with the publisher, who can then put you in touch with the author if they are the one who holds copyright.
If you can’t track down the copyright holder, that does not protect you from infringement.