(When) You Need Permission

(When) You Need Permission

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(updated 24 June 2020)

You need to ask permission—almost always—to use pictures or words that are not your own creation. It doesn’t matter what the use is unless you are a reporter, making a parody, or critiquing the material. Just ask, and stop arguing.

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). Citing or acknowledging the creator just avoids plagiarism; it does nothing to protect against copyright infringement.

Laws vary depending on the country the creator was in/is a citizen of (it varies) and what country you are publishing in (not printing in). Here we are discussing Canadian copyright laws, which are heavily descriptive and open to interpretation (by the courts, at great expense).


Common myths are addressed in the latest (3rd) edition of Editing Canadian English (ECE3), including the myth that if you can find it free online, it is free to use, and the myth 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. But the courts have been fairly vigorous in applying those criteria; for example, an ad that performed a rap song was deemed “not a parody”, which any reasonable person would agree was a shady attempt at defending that use.

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). (Really, anyone can use these tools as they’re publicly accessible, but they’re not supporting others with additional guidance or legal defense.)

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. (Links at end.)

Getting Permission

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. (Many writers don’t seem to realize that they don’t own copyright on words they wrote, the publisher does.)

If you can’t track down the copyright holder, that does not protect you from infringement. Try to use different material instead.

Get the Full Details

You can read more about Canadian copyright law and in the Copyright Act, itself. I’ve also written about it on this blog, oh, a thousand times. In particular, this one on the difference between citing (to avoid plagiarism) and permission (to avoid copyright infringement) is helpful. There’s also a helpful flowchart.

Some details about copyright in the USA can be found in this interactive tool and in these guidelines from Wiley & Sons for their authors to get permission.

Photo by Geishaboy500, used under CC BY-2.0 license.

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