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A picture speaks a thousand words, and a photo may enhance your work or content, but they are not always free to use. In New Zealand, photographs are protected by copyright. This means that if you would like to use someone else’s photo, you may need to ask yourself some questions first. These questions will help you understand whether you can use the photo straight away or if you need to seek permission. This is important because you do not want to infringe on someone else’s rights and face legal action later on. 

This article will step through each of these questions so that if you are considering using someone else’s photo, you will be able to do it correctly. 

1. What Is Copyright?

Copyright is an intellectual property tool that protects your original creative works. There are several copyright categories. These include:

  • literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works; 
  • the typographical layout of published editions; 
  • sound recordings; 
  • films; and 
  • communication works.

Copyright protection is automatic in New Zealand, which means the law grants rights and protections to copyright owners. These are:

Since copyright law protects photographs, this means there will be questions that you need to ask yourself before you use someone else’s photograph.

2. Who Is The Owner?

It is essential to know who the copyright owner is to figure out whether or not you need to seek their permission when using someone else’s photo. Generally, the owner of the photograph is the person who took it. However, some circumstances can change this. There are three common types of owners that will help you to determine who owns the photograph. They are:

  1. the photographer, as they took the photograph on their own accord;
  2. the photographer’s employer, because the photographer was under employment when the photograph was taken; or 
  3. the client of the photographer, as they commissioned the photograph to be taken. 

Taking the time to correctly identify the copyright owner of a photograph and seek permission for its use will avoid conflict and maybe even legal action in the future. You should consider that the intellectual property owner may change depending on what the photograph is for.

For example, if the client owns the photograph because it was commissioned for a wedding, they may be less likely to permit you to use it. 

3. Do I Need a Copyright Licence?

A copyright licence is a way for the copyright owner of the photograph to permit you to use it. Licence agreements can be flexible to suit whatever needs you and the copyright owner have. For example, they may wish to detail the length of time you can use the photograph. It is a good way for them to set clear boundaries and for you to have express permission that you can point to if an issue arises. Licence agreements set out different types of use. The table below lists these types of use.

Exclusive use

This is where you are the only one using the photograph.

Non-exclusive use

This is where you and the copyright owner can use the photograph simultaneously.

Sole use

This is where your licence agreement is the only one entered into.

4. What Are Moral Rights?

The law in New Zealand grants moral rights to the creator of copyright material and the majority of them will last as long as the copyright does. This is regardless of who the copyright owner ends up being and how widely the material is shared. There are four moral rights in New Zealand. You should consider each of these when you use a photograph. They are the right:

  • to be identified as the creator; 
  • not to be falsely identified as the creator; 
  • against the derogatory treatment of the creator’s work; and 
  • to privacy in films and photographs for domestic use.


Key Takeaways

If you are planning on using someone else’s photo, you should consider a few questions first. As the law inherently protects photographs with copyright, you should not use them without permission. You can seek out permission from the copyright owner in the form of a licence agreement. Regardless of how you end up using a photograph, it would be best to always stick to moral rights. 

If you need assistance with your intellectual property, LegalVision’s experienced intellectual property lawyers can help. Call us on 0800 005 570 or fill out the form on this page. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you register moral rights?

No, moral rights are not registerable. They apply automatically to photographs once they are taken. However, you may need to assert them in some cases.

How do you enforce a moral right?

If someone has infringed on your moral rights, you can seek legal action. 

How do I get a copyright licence?

You can write a copyright licence with legal advice. 

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