Know Your (Copy)Rights

You may be a business owner, artist, musician, author, or crafter.  You probably use print ads, flyers, brochures, a website, and even YouTube videos.  Your products may include images, text, or music.

If you publish ANYTHING – from a print ad to a song to a full-length novel – you need to know about copyright.  

So what is “copyright”?  It’s pretty simple (in a way):  it’s the RIGHT to COPY any “intellectual property” or “original works of authorship”.  This includes literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic creations (and more).  “Only the owner of copyright, very often the creator of the work, is allowed to produce or reproduce the work in question or to permit anyone else to do so” (Canadian Intellectual Property Office, “A Guide To Copyright”).


If you publish (or sell) anything containing copyrighted materials, you either must hold the copyright yourself, or have permission from the copyright holder. 

Copyrighted materials include photos, graphics, artwork, music (including lyrics), prose, poetry, and video.

  • If you took the photo yourself, created the artwork yourself, wrote the music yourself, or wrote the prose/poetry/lyrics yourself, then you are the copyright holder and there is no problem!  (WARNING:  this only applies if the source from which you created the work is not copyrighted.  For instance, if you took the music from a current radio hit and wrote your own lyrics to it, you are violating the copyright of the person who created the music).
  • Old family photos (of your own family, that is!) may be OK (this is one of those “grey” areas, and also tips into the area of protection of privacy when it’s the photo of a living person).  If the photo has never been published by anyone else and was taken before 1922, you are probably in the clear – but best to check with your country’s copyright authority.
  • You can use any public domain work freely.  Published materials older than a certain year (1924 in the US) is in the public domain (unless someone bought up the copyright – nothing is ever easy, is it?).  Also, the creator of a work has the right to declare that work to be in the public domain (in which case it should say so somewhere).
  • Your best source of you-can-use-it copyrighted materials is stock (also called royalty-free) images.  These are works where the copyright holder issues a license to use the work – in effect, you are “renting” some of the rights that belong to the copyright holder.  
    Some stock materials are free, other times the copyright holder requires a licensing fee.  Free or paid, the creator will most likely limit the uses for which the work is available.  For instance, some stock photos are only available for non-commercial (that is, personal or non-profit) use.  Always check the rights before using stock materials.  
  • Another good source is materials that have a Creative Commons license.  These items are made available for free use under certain conditions, stated in the license.  For instance, a Creative Commons BY license allows you to use the work freely as long as you “attribute” it (that is, say somewhere who actually created it).  (All of the free images available on the Dustwood Media website are available under a Creative Commons BY license).


Remember that you cannot freely use commercial music (such as you would hear on the radio), even if you personally sing and play the instruments. You MUST pay to license commercial music, which is usually VERY expensive!

EXCEPTION:  many favourite Christmas carols and old church hymns are in the public domain.  You can look up public domain hymns on the Internet, or check the copyright information in any church hymnal (usually printed at the bottom of the page or right under the hymn title).

For more detailed information and useful links, see the Dustwood Media “Copyright And Creative Commons Licenses” page.

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