Legal System

Copyright: When Can You Use Someone Else’s Work?


The web is full of images, videos and music – all easily accessible. Can you use them for free? Are there other rules around using them? What about your work: Can someone use it without permission?

What Is a Work?

A work protected by the law can take many forms. It can include photos, songs, videos, texts or even graffiti on a wall. But to be protected, the work must involve a use of skills and judgment. Also, a work is only protected if it results in a tangible physical outcome.

To learn more about what is protected by copyright, see our article Copyright: Protecting Creative Works.

General Rule: When You Can Use Someone Else’s Work

Usually, you can’t use someone else’s work without permission.  

For example, you can’t use a recent popular song in one of your videos, or use an image you found online for a work presentation. Also, you can’t copy a work to make your own version.

These rules apply even if you aren’t using the work to make a profit. They also apply even if you use the work for a small organization, such as one with only 10 employees. Anything that fits the definition of a work is protected by the Copyright Act.  

Only the person who has the copyright in a work can give you permission to use it. The person who has the copyright can be the person who created the work, but it can also be a business, for example, a company with a bank of photos.

Can you identify someone in a photo? Be careful about people’s right to control images of themselves!

Be careful if you use a photo or video in which you can recognize someone. People have the right to control images of themselves. You can only use their images with their permission.

To learn more, read our article Your Right to Control Photos and Videos of Yourself.

Sometimes You Can Use Someone Else’s Work

There are some exceptions that let you use other people’s work without their permission.

Works Offered by Online Platforms and Databases  

You can use images, songs and other works on online platforms and in databases, such as banks of photos that are free or available for a fee. Make sure to use credible platforms that respect copyright, for example, Getty Images, Shutterstock or Spotify.

You must follow the rules of the platform or database. For example, the rules might say you can only use the content privately and not commercially, which means you can’t use the content for an event or your business.

Works in the Public Domain

“Public domain” means a work is no longer protected by copyright and people can use it as they wish. Here is an example: in Canada, a work can fall into the public domain when the creator has been dead for 70 years.

So, in Canada, you could use as you wish the book Les Misérables, an original work by Victor Hugo, since he died in 1885.

Works Created by Employees

Employees who create works during their employment usually don’t have copyright on those works. Copyright belongs to the employer.

For example, an employee who creates a graphic design and a website in the context of employment doesn’t have copyright on that work. Employers can use the works created by employees without permission and after employees leave their jobs.  

The rules are different when it comes to freelancers: usually they own copyright on their work. For example, if a freelancer is hired to create content for an organization’s website, the freelancer has copyright on the content. If the organization wants the copyright, it must do this through the contract the two sides sign.

Another Exception: “Fair Dealing”

There are several rules to follow to be able to use this exception.

First, you must use the work in a way the law allows. Here are examples:

  • making photocopies for students in your class
  • writing a review of a work
  • making fun of a song
  • using pieces of a work to summarize it

Secondly, your use must be “fair.” To see if the use is fair, you have to look at several factors. Here are examples:

  • you don’t make many copies of the protected work
  • there is no equivalent work in the public domain
  • your use will not have a significant negative impact on the creator of the work

To learn more about fair dealing, see this web page from the University of Waterloo. The page has a link to a helpful flowchart to help you see if your use fits into fair dealing.

You might have heard the expression “fair use”? This term comes from American law and is a bit different than fair dealing.

What if You Use a Work Without Permission?

The copyright owner can sue you to be compensated.

Also, the big online services have policies to make sure users respect copyright rules. If you break those rules, they can delete your photos and videos,  stop you from making money from photos and videos, and even suspend your account.

Your Copyright Was Not Respected?

You can collect proof that someone is using your work without permission. For example, you can take screen shots.

You can also contact the person using your work to say you are the owner and to ask that person to stop using the work.

If you don’t get the result you want, you can send the person a demand letter.