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)




Where credit’s due

If we’re using and sharing other people’s copyrighted photos, we should be scrupulous in telling people the source, who owns the copyright, and whether someone else can reuse it. But even museum and library professionals regularly get this wrong. Here’s a quick guide to crediting photos properly. This is not just good practice, it’s the law (specifically, the 1994 Copyright Act).

There are two things you should declare when you use someone else’s photo: the copyright owner (whoever owns the right to make copies of it), and the licence (why you were allowed to make a copy).


The copyright owner is usually the photographer. Sometimes, if they took the photo as part of their job, their employer owns that copyright. Regardless, we have to say who the copyright holder is. If the copyright is held by an organisation, like DOC or Knox College, I personally credit the photographer as well if I know who they are. That isn’t required, it’s just being polite. 

Sometimes the copyright has expired – in New Zealand, that happens 50 years after the photographer’s death, or for photos taken before 1944. If there’s no longer any copyright, you can do what you like with the photo, and there’s no requirement to credit anyone. Some institutions put all sort of conditions and restrictions on the use of out-of-copyright photographs, but you should usually just ignore those; feel free to be polite and identify the author or source, but you don’t have to.


If the photo is still in copyright, the default licence is All Rights Reserved. That usually means you need the permission of the copyright holder to reuse it; there are only a few exceptions (research, private study, criticism, or review – as I’m doing in the examples below). But even if you don’t need permission to reproduce the photo, you should still credit it properly.

You don’t have to put the full credit in the photo caption, and often publishers don’t. They’ll put the copyright owner’s name in tiny capitals under or beside the image, and in a “photo credits” section say something like: “p 74: © Daisy Smith / All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.” You can do this too.

If there’s no copyright (it’s expired, or the creator has released the photo into the public domain) you should say “No known copyright” or “Public domain” in the credit. You don’t have to, but it’s good practice. When you reproduce a photo, you should also be telling people if or how they can reuse that photo themselves: don’t give them false information!

Some photos are released under a Creative Commons or CC licence: everything in WikiCommons* (which supplies most of Wikipedia’s photos), much of Te Ara, and some of Flickr or DigitalNZ. A Creative Commons image is free for anyone to use, but there’s usually one or more conditions. If you found the photo on Wikipedia, you should click through to view it, then click “View on Commons” to see where it’s stored on WikiCommons and what those conditions are. For example, the license might be CC BY 4.0 (translation: Creative Commons, Attribution). This means you have to credit the copyright holder (usually the photographer). This isn’t optional, or being nice! It’s a legal agreement you’ve entered into by reusing that photograph. Sometimes the photographer only gives their silly Wikipedia username. You still have to credit them.

You also have to state what kind of CC licence the photograph has (so people know what they themselves can use it for), and ideally give a source or link that lets people find the original. This is also part of the legal agreement you’ve entered into! The best way to do this if the photo’s online is a link to its page in WikiCommons. In print media you can just say “WikiCommons” or “Wikimedia Commons”.

If a DOC office emailed you this Brown Teal photo, the credit would look something like “© DOC / CC BY”, which translates as “DOC owns the copyright, and they’re releasing the photo under a Creative Commons Attribution licence”. If you found this photo on Flickr, you could link to it directly, using the licence it says on Flickr: “© DOC / Flickr / CC BY 2.0”. But looking at the photo’s metadata tells us it was taken in 2009 by “Fantommst”, who turns out to be Auckland photographer Lisa Ridings. Presumably DOC commissioned it, or she was working for them. So an even better credit would be “© DOC / Lisa Ridings / Flickr / CC BY 2.0”


This is a Sharon Murdoch cartoon published in Stuff. It’s still very much in copyright, even though there’s a copy hosted in the NLNZ collection. So we’d need to ask for permission to reuse this, and the credit line would be:

© Sharon Murdoch/Stuff, All Rights Reserved

“Wikimedia” definitely didn’t take this photo of the Champs Élysées; when we track it down it in Wikimedia Commons, we see that German war correspondent Johannes Jörgensen did, and the German National Archive has specified how they’d like to be credited. So the correct credit, with a link to the original, is: 

Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-362-2210-05A / Jörgensen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

This is a photo of the late entomologist Ray Shannon, from his personal papers, but just being in a photo doesn’t make you the copyright holder. Ray almost certainly didn’t take this photo, and since it’s less than 50 years old it’s definitely copyrighted to someone; we’d need to track them down and get permission before we could use it at all.

The dreaded Mr or Ms “Supplied”, who seems to take most of the photos in newspapers. The photo is actually a selfie by Axel Wilke, and available in WikiCommons, so the Herald should have put:

© Axel Wilke / Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0


We should be obeying the law and crediting creators properly. When you use someone else’s photo, clearly state whose it is, and what licence it’s released under. Let’s lift our game.

A version of this blog post appeared in the February 2021 edition of the LIANZA journal Library Life.

* Just to clarify some confusing names: Creative Commons is a licensing scheme for copyrighted photographs; Wikimedia Commons or WikiCommons is a website that hosts freely-usable photos. Most of the photos in WikiCommons have a Creative Commons licence.