Releasing a book copyright

One of the powerful things an institution can do for a copyright holder is help them share their work with a wider audience using an open licence.

In New Zealand, copyright lasts for 50 years after death; for 50 years anyone wanting to excerpt, digitise, share, or reprint all or part of a book from – who? Whoever inherited the copyright. Most authors don’t mention their copyrights in their will, and there’s no central register that tells you who the current copyright holder of a work is. Thus many books become “orphan works” after the author dies: somebody owns the copyright, nobody knows who, and so the text can’t be used for anything by anyone for 50 years.

That sounds a bit drastic, but New Zealand doesn’t currently have a “Fair Use” exemption in its copyright law, so apart for “criticism or review” all the following uses would need permission:

  • Quoting a paragraph from the book in a museum label
  • Reprinting a chapter in a free souvenir booklet
  • Reproducing an illustration on a non-profit historical society website
  • Making a digital copy for a library to lend out as an e-book
  • Reading out an excerpt at a funeral

Vonnie Alexander’s 2010 book Gillespies Beach Beginnings is a local history of a small gold-mining settlement in South Westland. Self-published with a tiny print run, only 10 libraries in the world have it, all in New Zealand. As part of our Wikisource project, we wanted to scan it and convert it into an e-book. I contacted Vonnie and asked if she would be willing to license Gillespies Beach Beginnings under an open license, or even release it to the public domain. It’s important to note that with an open licence the author keeps their copyright; they’re just stipulating how people are allowed to make copies – essentially, giving permission in advance.

Here’s some wording for legal licensing or copyright release you could use with an author (although it’s based on other releases I’ve seen, I hereby release it to the public domain, CC0 1.0). It’s important that, as well as being saved by both parties, the form is saved with the digitised text (and forwarded to the Volunteer Response Team if the file is uploaded to Wikimedia Commons).

I represent to the Westland District Library that I am either a copyright holder of the following work (“the Work”) or their representative, with the right and authorisation to licence the Work.


Indentifier (e.g. ISBN):

I also represent that the Work, to the best of my knowledge, does not infringe or violate any rights of others.

I represent that I have obtained all necessary rights to permit the Westland District Library to share the Work, and that any third-party content is clearly identified and acknowledged within the Work.

Pick one:

□ I dedicate the Work to the public domain using the Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication 1.0 (CC0)
I license the Work to the public under the terms of the following licence
□ Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (CC BY)
□ Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 (CC BY SA)
□ Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 (CC BY-NC)
□ Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 4.0 (CC BY-NC-SA)