Know-how series: Copyright – protecting and encouraging creativity

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Special Counsel - Head of Trade Marks and Designs

Copyright is a fundamental legal concept that protects the rights of creators whilst also encouraging innovation and creativity. If you’re a creator, knowing your rights can help you maximise the value of your work.

This article provides a comprehensive overview of copyright protection in New Zealand, including its qualifying works, ownership, infringement, enforcement, and recent developments under the New Zealand Copyright Act 1994.

This article forms part of our IP ‘Know-how’ series, which will explore a range of IP rights, including:

  • Trade Marks: the brands that identify your preferred product or service provider;  
  • Patents: the invention which makes your life easier;
  • Copyright: rights in your favourite book, song or movie;
  • Geographic Indicators: the places where your wine and cheese might originate from; and
  • Designs: how something looks, but not the way it works.

What does copyright protect?

Copyright covers a wide range of creative works, including literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works, sound recordings, films, communication works, and typographical arrangements of published editions.

In New Zealand, copyright also covers industrially applied designs (being generally a work that has had more than 50 three dimensional copies made for sale or hire).

Copyright does not protect ideas or concepts but rather the expression of those ideas.

To be eligible for copyright protection, a work must fit into one of the above designated categories and must also be original.

An ‘original work’ means that the author independently created the work through their own skill, judgment, and effort without having copied from other works. However, a work does not need to have any artistic merit and the level of originality doesn’t need to be very high for there to be some copyright protection.

Who owns the copyright?

Unless there is an agreement to the contrary, the first owner of the copyright is usually the author/creator, but there are a couple of exceptions to this rule:

  • a literary, dramatic, musical, or artistic work made by a person in the course of his/her employment is generally owned by the employer (unless there is an agreement to the contrary); and
  • a photograph, computer program, painting, drawing, diagram, map, chart, plan, engraving, model, sculpture, film, or sound recording made on commission is generally owned by the commissioner (unless there is an agreement to the contrary).

What rights does copyright include?

Copyright gives owners certain exclusive rights, including the right to:

  • copy the work;
  • issue copies of the work in public;
  • perform, show, play, or communicate the work in public;
  • make an adaptation of the work or do any of the above in relation to the adaptation; and
  • authorise another person to do any of the above acts.

In addition to economic rights, New Zealand copyright law also recognises moral rights. Moral rights protect the personal connection between the creator and their work. These rights include the rights to be identified as the author, object to derogatory treatment of the work, and maintain privacy for certain works.

When does copyright expire?

Copyright protection doesn’t last forever. In fact, the length of protection depends on the category of the work – for example:

  • A literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work holds copyright until 50 years after the end of the calendar year its author dies. Though, industrially applied designs (being generally a work that has had more than 50 three dimensional copies made for sale or hire) are only protected for 16 years, to align with similar protection under the Designs Act 1953.
  • Sound recordings or films hold their copyright until 50 years after the end of the calendar year in which the recording or film is made, or 50 years after the end of the calendar year it was first made available.

The New Zealand government has committed to extending copyright terms by 20 years under its recent Free Trade Agreements with the UK and EU, and we expect to see these terms extended within the next four years.

What is copyright infringement?

Copyright infringement occurs when someone does something that a copyright owner has the exclusive right to do without that owner’s permission. This includes copying, distributing, and performing copyrighted works, and can also include importing, possessing, selling, or exhibiting infringing copies.

Copyright owners can sue for infringement and obtain various legal remedies, such as injunctions, damages, and seizure of infringing articles.

Rights-holders can also request New Zealand Customs seize infringing copies being imported into the country.

Recent copyright developments

The New Zealand Government has introduced the Resale Right for Visual Artists Bill which aims to give visual artists a long-term financial interest in their work. It’s a big step forward for both New Zealand’s visual art industry and the rights of copyright owners. We’ve written about the Bill and its developments in further detail here.

As mentioned above, the New Zealand government has committed to extending the copyright term by 20 years under its recent Free Trade Agreements with the UK and EU within the next four years. It will also need to extend protection to digital locks (technological protection measures) to include prevention of trying to circumvent those locks.

We expect that this means the long overdue review of the New Zealand Copyright Act 1994 will take place over the next four years. Watch this space!


Copyright law aims to foster creativity by safeguarding the rights of creators.

Understanding copyright law is crucial for creators wanting to ensure they enjoy the full value of their work.

What now?

If you’re wondering what your rights are over a creative work that you’ve made or bought, get in touch!  

We can help you:

  • understand the rights you hold in a particular work;
  • license, transfer or assign your rights to others; and
  • prevent unauthorised use of your work.

Special thanks to Senior Associate Katy Stove and Graduate / Law Clerk Christian Tucker for preparing this article. For specialist advice on any intellectual property query, please contact a member of our Intellectual Property team.

Disclaimer: The content of this article is general in nature and not intended as a substitute for specific professional advice on any matter and should not be relied upon for that purpose.

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