Music Month — exploring creativity and copyright

New Zealand Music Month is a great opportunity to promote New Zealand music in your school. It's also a chance to learn about creativity, copyright, licensing, and responsible reuse.

We all need some pretty sharp digital literacy skills to create and navigate New Zealand digital content today. So put on your favourite New Zealand album, and read our Music Month guide to understanding and exploring the impact of copyright on music creativity, including some useful links to find reuse-friendly audio visual resources.

You can also read about resources for New Zealand Music Month in my other blog post.

Young women with instruments outdoors
Photo by Cedrik Mosquera. Unsplash. License to use.

Copy what?

Copyright and its implications can be hard to unpack. According to the 'Oxford English Dictionary', copyright can be defined as:

The exclusive right given by law for a certain term of years to an author, composer, designer, etc. (or his assignee), to print, publish, and sell copies of his original work.
— Oxford English Dictionary

This legal right varies from country to country. In New Zealand, we have the Copyright Act 1994 (currently under review) which sets out the specifications for using and copying original works.

So far so good, but there are complex issues around copyright that require deep thinking around how we define terms like:

  • original work
  • copy
  • ownership
  • authorship
  • license
  • use.

And these terms lead us to more complex questions like:

  • What is the difference between copyright and ownership?
  • Can you own original work but not the copyright to it?
  • What do licences to use an original work let you do?

Copyright and digital objects

Every day, we encounter digital objects that are easy to save, modify, and share. So how can we make sure we use digital content responsibly and teach our students to do the same?

Let's begin with an understanding of copyright by using the following example.

A copyright case study with my imaginary hit song

Step 1 — Create something!

So, imagine I have some great lyrics, and a clever little melody, which over the course of a few weeks, I refine, add a chorus, some hand claps, and then wow! a song! It's pretty simple, just me and my guitar, but it's my own original creation.


Anyone can create an original work of creative expression, anytime, any place.

Step 2 — Know your rights

According to The New Zealand Intellectual Property Office, under New Zealand law, copyright is created automatically for original work — like artworks, books, websites, computer programs, drawings, plays, films, musical works, and sound recordings.

Creators can sometimes sell their copyright to other parties, or these rights can pass on to someone after the creator's death. So, in some instances, an individual who owns the original work (like a painting) might not own the copyright to it.


When you create a work of original creative expression, you are automatically granted copyright for that work. You may choose to keep, sell, or give away your copyright if you wish.

Step 3 — Record your creativity

Copyright protects the expression of ideas or information — not the ideas or information itself. For example, if you write a novel, the text will be protected, but not the ideas or plot.
Ownership and protection, The New Zealand Intellectual Property Office

If I am just playing the song on my guitar in my bedroom, without recording it, it's not copyright protected because I haven't made a tangible record of my idea.

However, I want to share my song with my friends and get their feedback, so I decide to make a recording of it on my phone.

It's not super high quality but I'm really happy with it. Voila! Now I have a record or tangible evidence of my creative expression.


Copyright applies to tangible evidence of your creative expression — not the ideas themselves.

Step 4 — Share your song

I'm excited about the song I've just created. I want to share it and also get feedback. So, I send the file to my friends and ask them what they think. The attachment is a digital copy of the original record of my creative expression. As the creator (and copyright holder), I have the legal right to do this.

My friends love it! One of them thinks it's so great she uploads it to YouTube. She knows I'm a bit shy and might be reluctant to make the song publicly available. This is an infringement of my copyright.

Someone hears it on YouTube and plays it at a party. This is an infringement of my copyright. Everyone loves it, and they copy the file. Soon people are listening to the song worldwide. This is an infringement of my copyright. Someone uses it in a commercial, another person uses it in a play. And I don't know anything about it until a few months later when someone tags me in an Instagram post.


Every time a file is copied, shared, and used without the copyright holder's consent, it is a copyright violation.

Step 5 — License your work

So I contact my friend and ask her to take the song off YouTube. I don't care about making money from my song, I want people to share it and listen to it. However, I don't want it to be used for selling anything, and I want people to know it was me who made and recorded it. I want to license my work so that other people can copy my song, but I don't want to have to negotiate individual licenses with everyone who wants to copy it.

The best way for me to do this is to give my work a Creative Commons licence. In applying a Creative Commons Copyright licence, I give my permission for people to use my song in ways I can specify. Read more about Creative Commons and their licenses on their website.

So, I publish the song under the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International licence that does not allow for commercial use but people are free to listen, remix, and share my song as long as they give me credit. If they do remix it, they have to share it under the same conditions — that is, give me credit, and not use it for commercial purposes.

Now my work is licensed, people share it, and no one uses it to make a profit or sell anything. People get inspired, start creating remixes, and Lorde performs a cover of it. I win a Silver Scroll! Win-win for the entire universe, right? All because I took the time to understand how copyright works, and support more equitable and open exchange of knowledge and creativity in society.


Knowing how copyright and licensing works help both the creator and the public benefit from creative works.

Teaching about copyright

So, that is how copyright works, or should work, in a nutshell.

In general practice, however, we all create content, copy, and share it digitally every day, in most instances without checking copyright or negotiating licenses. This is why it is worth understanding the basics of copyright, and making sure our students do, so that we understand the ethical and legal impacts of our choices.

Copyright is relevant across all learning areas of the curriculum. Teachers and library staff can embed ethical reuse and copyright-related activities into most types of learning activities at any level.

Reuse-friendly music and images to share with students

Here are some collections of Creative Commons licensed work you can ethically and responsibly share with your students or use in the classroom.



Find out more

Copyright and Creative Commons — a guide from Services to Schools that includes the types of Creative Commons licenses and how they work.

Copyright for Music Creators from APRA — the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) is the oldest copyright collection society in Australia and represents over 47,000 composers, lyricists, and music publishers.

New Zealand copyright law — Consumer NZ answers common questions about copyright law and file sharing.

By Nicole Gaston

Nicole is an Online Content Services Developer for Services to Schools.

Post a Comment

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John Sullivan May 20th at 5:31PM

Great blog Nicole. It sets out all the issues in a clear, logical manner, without making it sound intimidating.

Nicole GastonNational Library May 22nd at 10:32AM

Thanks John :)