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Copyright: The essentials

This guide provides answers to the most frequently asked questions with regard to copyright in Canada as well as the copyright compliance at McGill University and beyond.

Copyright in Canada: General information

Copyright protects literary, artistic, dramatic and musical works, as well as sound recordings, performances, and communication signals, published in a variety of formats, ranging from books, articles, posters, manuals and graphs, to CDs, DVDs, software, databases and websites.

In Canada, copyright protection arises automatically when any one of the above types of works is created and generally continues for 50 years after the author’s death; however, at the end of 2022, the term after an author's death was extended to 70 years to align with current copyright terms in the United States and in many parts of Europe. This general rule can differ depending on factors such as the type of work, the manner of publication, and the date of creation/publication. If you are trying to determine whether a work is still in copyright in Canada, the University of Alberta's Public domain flowchart is a good resource. Use of a work in Canada is governed by the Canadian law  and generally covered by the Canadian Copyright Act

To facilitate use of copyright-protected works for faculty and students, McGill University has entered into various agreements and licenses with copyright owners (publishers of subscription-based journals and databases) and copyright collectives representing copyright owners, including Copibec (see Copyrighted readings & myCourses).

Find more information at Copyright at McGill and in its FAQ

Duration by type of material

Duration of copyright in Canada (general)
Type of work Duration of copyright
Published literary works
  1. If creator's death was on December 31, 1971 or before then year of author's death + 50 years
  2. If creator's death was on January 1, 1972 or after then ear of author's death + 70 years
Sound recordings 70 years after the release date
Photographs taken before 1949 In public domain

Unpublished work (author died before Jan 1, 1949)

In public domain
Published Crown works 50 years after the date of publication
Unpublished Crown works Perpetual copyright

Fair dealing

NB: It is important to distinguish "fair dealing" from "fair use." The fair use exception in U.S. copyright law is NOT the equivalent of fair dealing in Canadian law. Make sure that you consider the Canadian law and are not relying on U.S. information.

Fair dealing is a user’s right in copyright law permitting use, or "dealing" with, a copyright-protected work without permission or payment of copyright royalties. The fair dealing exception in the Copyright Act allows to use copyright material for the purpose of research, private study, criticism, review, news reporting, education, satire, or parody provided that the use is "fair."  To determine whether the use is "fair" courts usually consider following factors:

  • Purpose of the dealing (e.g. Is it commercial or research/educational?)
  • Amount of the dealing (e.g. How much was copied?)
  • the character of the dealing (e.g. What was done with the work? Was it an isolated use or an ongoing, repetitive use? How widely was it distributed?)
  • Alternatives to the dealing (e.g. Was the work necessary for the end result? Could the purpose have been achieved without using the work?)
  • Nature of the work (e.g. Is there a public interest in its dissemination? Was it previously unpublished?)
  • Effect of the dealing on the original work (e.g. Does the use compete with the market of the original work?)

It is not necessary that the use meets every one of these factors in order to be fair and no one factor is determinative by itself. In assessing whether your use is fair, a court would look at the factors as a whole to determine if, on balance, the use is fair.

An example of the interpretation of fair dealing is the Fair Dealing Guidelines from the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada.

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