Canadian mint claims copyright over pictures of pennies

The Canadian mint sent a legal threat to a folk-singer called Dave Gunning, objecting to his use of photos of pennies in the liner notes on his latest CD, No More Pennies, which eulogizes the Canadian one-cent piece, now discontinued.

My friends in the commonwealth sometimes don't understand what the practical difference is between "Crown copyright" (where the government holds a copyright to the works it creates at taxpayers' expense) and the US system, where government works automatically enter the public domain. But here it is: the right of Canadian artists to create art about the decisions of the Canadian government is contingent on the government's permission -- and is subject to an arbitrary fee levied by the state.

After a good deal of public embarrassment, the mint backed down, but it continues to assert that it holds a copyright in the image of Canadian currency.

On the other hand, if Mr Gunning wants to reissue his CD jacket with pictures of American pennies, he'll be on safe ground.

The Globe and Mail's Brad Wheeler describes Gunning's answer to the mint:

After an initial run of 2000 albums had already been produced, Gunning was notified that he’d need to to pay $1,200 for the rights to the penny image. After Gunning spoke to CBC Radio One’s Mainstreet Halifax about the fee and a “penny drive” to cover the costs, the Mint waived the royalty.

The ubiquitous currency will no longer be circulated in Canada as of Feb. 4, 2013. No More Pennies, Gunning’s 10th album, is, in his words, a “heartfelt tribute to the passing of the penny.” The vanishing of the loosest of loose change is a metaphor for the passing of time.

Although the copyright fee for the album’s initial run of 2,000 albums was waived, the Mint has conditions tied to any future copies of the CD. Gunning has made the requested alterations to the original design and has resubmitted his application for permission to use the one-cent likenesses. The Mint will now decide on what amount, if any, it will charge the musician. “We’re not preventing Dave Gunning from commemorating the penny through his album,” says Christine Aquino, the Mint’s communications director. “The issue is the use of the image, and we’ll be working with him on that.”

Canadian folk singer fighting with the Mint over pennies

(Image: CANADA, GEORGE V 1920 ---FIRST ISSUE, SMALL ONE CENT a, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from woodysworld1778's photostream)


  1. I’m confused, is this a photo of a penny that the government created or a photo that 
    Dave Gunning took? If dave took it isn’t the copyright his? despite the fact that the item in the photo might technically be the government’s property? does copyright law in Canada work that differently than i the US?

    1. I assume it’s Dave’s photo.  Regardless, the point is that the coin’s design is protected under “Crown copyright”, which is a special kind of copyright, i.e. not just “ordinary copyright that happens to be held by the Crown”.

      The bit I don’t get is that Crown copyright is supposed to apply for a 50 year term, and that coin is from 1920.

    2. In the USA if You take a photograph of something created by Someone Else then the copyright in that photograph is split between You and that Someone Else. Reproducing that photograph needs permission from You and from Someone Else. The photograph is a derivative work, like a translation.

      If the Someone Else is the US government then you get their permission automatically.

      If the Someone Else is the Canadian Mint then you have to pay to get their permission.

      The right of Panorama may or may not mean you don’t need permission from the Someone Else who has copyright of the thing. That can depend on  whether the thing you photographed
      * is indoors or outdoors
      * is in a publically accessible space (is there a gate? is it closed at night?)
      * is a sculpture (3D) or a  mural (2D),
      * is engineering (functional) or architecture or ‘art’, 
      * is temporarily located or permanently fixed 
      * what country you are in.

      1. Somewhere in there we need to include the right of every human being to exist in the world and communicate about it without having to pay a financial tax or even an attentional tax just to express him- or herself.  We shouldn’t even have to think about this.  The desire to keep people from using pictures of money is not a legitimate interest, and it’s just one example of IP overreach among too many examples.

        In my opinion.

        (Nothing against you or your post, it’s a good and informative list .. it’s policy and established law that are the problems. *cough* Apple *cough* Samsung *cough* bullshit.)

      2. No, it is not the case in the U.S. that if you take a photo of something created by someone else, the copyright is split.

        You do not have the right to make derivative works (meaning, take photos) without the permission of whoever holds the copyright in the individual work. You don’t gain that right just by taking your picture.
        It’s true that people take pictures of stuff all the time, mainly for their own purposes, and the copyright holder rarely goes after them.  But you try taking a picture of, say, original artwork of Mickey Mouse and see how far you get trying to sell your derivative work.

        A big factor in the last expansion of the period of copyright protection in the U.S. was the influence of copyright holders like Disney, since the earliest of Walt’s art work had been on the verge of entering the public domain.Also, you do not need permission of the U.S. government to reproduce its works, since the U.S. does not hold copyright. There’s no permission to get.

  2. If the mint hadn’t dropped the charges, I’d have suggested paying them in pennies — minutes before the penny ceased to become legal tender. 

    1.  Bad news:

      A payment in coins is legal tender for no more than the following amounts for the following denominations of coins:

      forty dollars if the denomination is two dollars or greater but does not exceed ten dollars; twenty-five dollars if the denomination is one dollar; ten dollars if the denomination is ten cents or greater but less than one dollar; five dollars if the denomination is five cents; and twenty-five cents if the denomination is one cent.

      1. Also, the penny will never cease to be legal tender.  Any item that ever was legal tender in Canada remains legal tender (gross simplification).  We can still use paper $2 bills to pay for things.  The only change in 2013 is that banks will be actively removing pennies from circulation, and the mint will no longer be producing any more of them.

  3. woah hold on: I think the interesting part is not that a government might have been being dickish about a particular instance of this kind of art, but it is dickish about EVERY instance of this type of art, apparently as part of it’s normal practice:

    “But here it is: the right of Canadian artists to create art about the decisions of the Canadian government is contingent on the government’s permission — and is subject to an arbitrary fee levied by the state.”

    How much does that suck?! it’s kind of crazy.

  4. That’s ridiculous. You can’t copyright the platonic ideal of something and every representation thereof.

  5. 120000 pennies for your thoughts. The Crown is alright, it’s all those “managers” wearing tiaras that cause the problems

  6. Talked about this many times before, but there are plenty of reasons for Crown copyright, Licencing, and all sorts of things whereby the Crown requires payment for stuff they created. Saying that it was done at the “tax payers expense” is loaded sentance suggesting that all this stuff should be free.

    The goverment in many cases is tasked for providing value for services. In many cases to demostrate that tax payer money is being spent is getting a good return for value. Just giving it all away for free, isn’t much value. In many cases it WILL be given away,  as it is likely deemed to be in the best intrest of the people.

    However if government creates something, using tax payer money, you think it is reasonable to just give that away all the time to any company or individual, who will turn around and use that for personal or corporate profit? In many cases they should pay, so that the tax payer doesn’t have to as much, or they are at least getting something for their hard earned tax dollars.

    In this particular case, sure that muscian might make some money, but what does everyone else get? Notta. Usually this is more of a commercial large scale type thing, and this clearly wasn’t really. Also copyrighting an image (all?) of a penny is plainly stupid. Likely someone make a knee jerk decision, and then later after consideration they dropped the issue, as they seem to have done.

  7. As a coin collector, and one who specifically seeks out Canadian coins, I’m more than a little appalled that the Canadian government is no longer minting pennies.

    But I’m even more concerned that some of the dealers I rely on are in danger of being threatened for copyright infringement because of the reproductions of Canadian coins they put on their websites.

    Yes, the mint backed down in Mr. Gunning’s case, but if they decided to go after coin dealers and won they could make…well, a mint. 

    1. As a tourist in Canada at the moment I’m appalled that the Canadian government didn’t scrap pennies years ago. They’re worth so little that all I can ever figure out what to do with them is work out how much I should tip someone, give them that much and then add the pile of pennies that inevitably ends up filling up my change pocket. 

  8. Apparently he should have just taped a penny to every album. Would have been neater and cheaper (if they hadn’t backed down and they don’t come back with another claim).

  9. I recently took over 10 pounds of (American) pennies to the supermarket to drop into the CoinStar machine. I was worth a little over $18. I couldn’t find a fruit in the store that was $1.80 a pound. If pennies grew on trees, it wouldn’t be worth it to pick them.

    I hate pennies.

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