Public Domain Guide

Our resource, Copyright terms and the public domain in New Zealand, provides an easy reference guide for anyone wanting to know what was out of copyright in New Zealand as of 1 January 2022. We update this annually as further content enters the public domain, and will also amend it should legislation change.

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What is the public domain?

Once copyright expires, works such as books, photographs, and films enter the public domain and may be used and adapted by anyone. Copyright is a legal protection for creators and publishers of original works that provides them with a monopoly for a fixed term over the copying, adaptation, and distribution of their works.

With a small number of exceptions e.g. relating to some unpublished works held by institutions, indecency laws and privacy of living persons, when those fixed terms expire the original works enter the public domain. At this point, permission or authorisation to copy, adapt, or distribute the works is no longer needed from the former copyright owners.

Why is public domain material of interest?

The ability to make use of public domain material is a boon for users of digital technology, as it allows the digitisation, adaptation, and republication of works for anyone to access, use, and share. A rapidly growing interest in New Zealand history means that there is also often demand for older material that can be searched for online, downloaded, and put to free use.

Is all material older than 50 years in the public domain? How about 70 years?

No. As a consequence of recent extensions to copyright terms in Australia, the United States, Europe and the United Kingdom, New Zealand currently has some of the shortest terms for copyright in the English speaking world. A significant number of works created in 1971 or earlier are out of copyright in New Zealand - however, an equally significant number are still in copyright. This means that you cannot simply assume old material is out of copyright based on the year it was created or published - you will need to do some homework to confirm material really is in the public domain. You should also be aware that public domain content in New Zealand may still be in copyright for overseas users. Our Guide on Enabling Use and e-use has some of the steps you can follow to establish material is really in the public domain.

What older material is still in copyright?

Older material that is not in the public domain in New Zealand includes:

  • unpublished works by unknown authors (other than photographs, film, or sound recordings), the first of which will not be out of copyright until 2046

  • all works made by the Crown in 1945 and later, the first of which will not be out of copyright until 2046

  • new compilations, recordings, or arrangements of public domain works, which are protected for 25 years from publication

  • most works (other than photographs, film, or sound recordings) published before 1971 where it can't be reasonably assumed the creator died before 1971 or where the creator was known to be alive in 1971.

Can I just assume all material where the creator is unknown is public domain?

No. Where copyright terms require you to make a reasonable enquiry or a reasonable assumption of death, your research should be good enough to defend in a court of law if need be. We have some suggestions about the documented steps you might take to ensure your enquiry is reasonable in our main guide, Enabling Use and Re-use.

How should I use this guide?

The 'Copyright terms and the public domain' guide is designed to provide you with general information about New Zealand copyright terms and the public domain that is simpler to follow than reading the legislation. Its best use is as a tool to assist you to plan and develop your own policies and practices for dealing with out of copyright material.

We have checked the information with lawyers and believe it to be accurate. However, the contents of this guide do not constitute legal advice and DigitalNZ is not responsible for any loss or damage caused as a result of following it. If you have specific issues or areas of doubt you should seek advice from a suitably qualified professional.