Ethical Guidelines for Canadian Storytellers


These guidelines are intended to advise storytellers on the appropriate use and recognition of sources and materials in public performance. Their purpose is to cultivate artistic freedom within an environment of respect for the creators and lineage of stories, the community of storytellers and the audiences who listen.

They are guidelines for ethical practice, and do not carry legal weight. The relationship between the legal and ethical environments is complex. Sometimes they coincide where storytelling is concerned, sometimes they do not. Either may be more or less restrictive, depending on the circumstances. Many issues remain unclear.

Nevertheless, it is clear that particular practices related to the use of sources and materials for storytelling may be ethical, or may be unethical. These guidelines are intended as a guide for distinguishing between the two situations, wherever possible.


  1. Story. For ethical purposes, a “story” is a work of art identified as such by its creator or interpreter.

  2. Telling. A “telling” is an oral presentation or performance of a story in which the work is presented or communicated directly by the teller to the audience without mediation of a printed or other physical copy.

    1. In a “live telling” the teller is present before the audience in person.
    2. In a “broadcast telling” the audience experiences the telling through the medium of radio or video or television or film or medium of similar effect.
    3. A live telling which is broadcast or recorded for future broadcast is, for ethical purposes, a broadcast telling.

  3. Copy and Recording. A “copy” is a reproduction of a story in print or other visual form. A “recording” is a reproduction of a telling in audible form (such as a tape, CD, wax cylinder, or other medium), and may be “audio” or “video,” the latter including any audible-visual medium of similar effect.

  4. Remunerated and Unremunerated Telling. A “remunerated telling” is a telling with economic value to the teller or the producer of the event. An “unremunerated telling” is one without economic value, or with minimal economic value. A payment of any kind or size to the teller (any performing fee or honorarium) represents economic value to the teller. Sale of a ticket or pass or instrument of any such kind to members of the audience represents economic value to the producer.

  5. Copyright, Performing Rights, and Unremunerated Telling Rights. Any reproduction of a story that is a “copy” or “recording” or “broadcast telling” is governed by copyright and all its legal details. Any remunerated telling is governed by performing rights which are similarly protected. “Unremunerated telling rights” are those that govern unremunerated telling only.

  6. Idea, Version and Text. The “idea” of a story is a general statement of its framework or armature, lacking specification of details beyond those necessary for recognition of the story. A “version” of a story specifies details of plot, characters, location, etc., but not wording. A “text” specifies wording. These distinctions are not necessarily clear-cut.

  7. Lineage: Author, Teller’s Source, and Cultural Tradition. The “author” is the creator of the story (entirely, or the version, or the text). The “teller’s source” is the place (book, recording, oral telling, etc.) where the teller obtained the story. The “cultural tradition” is the tradition identified as the ultimate source of the story. Together these form the “lineage” of the story. If the story is unpublished, then the teller’s source is the “author” for ethical purposes, until a previous author is identified or comes forward.

  8. Author, Author’s Estate and Public Domain. These terms refer to the ownership of copyright and performing rights. The “author” is the living author. The “author’s estate” is the owner of any rights to the material (copyright or performing rights) from the time of the author’s death until 50 years later. The “public storytelling domain” is that realm into which the materials pass 50 years after the author’s death.

An Important Ethical Concept: Ownership of a Legal Copy

A teller “owns a legal copy” of a story if she or he has paid for it legally, or been given it legally, or given permission to use it by the author or some properly appointed agent of the author. The status of sources and materials borrowed from a public library or another person is unclear. Sources and materials to which the teller has legal access for reading and study, or even to copy for personal use, may not necessarily be used ethically for storytelling. Some believe that to borrow a copy from a public library or another person is not to “own a legal copy.” In general, however, a photocopy or computer scan, without permission, is not a legal copy unless all copyrights have expired and the work is entirely in the public storytelling domain.

General Ethical Principles

  1. The individual storyteller is an independent artist engaged in creative work under an artistic vision formed by the artist using whatever set of guides, mentors or sources of inspiration she or he thinks appropriate. It is not for others to specify allowable artistic visions, only reasonable limitations on expression, which should be kept to the minimum absolutely necessary. Artistic freedom is important and should be respected.

  2. Ethics are not law. It is the teller’s responsibility to know and respect the law, which may be broader than ethics in some respects, narrower in others.

  3. If rights are in doubt, the teller should not assume they can be simply appropriated. A teller should assume that rights exist (i.e. someone owns them) unless there is clear evidence that they do not, should exercise due diligence in locating and receiving permission from the owners of rights, and should document the search.

  4. The responsibility to seek permission from the author, publisher, editor, or other holder of rights to material is sometimes legally necessary, sometimes ethically necessary, sometimes highly desirable, sometimes an agreeable courtesy. When in doubt, the storyteller should seek permission.

  5. Ethical behaviour is primarily a matter for the individual teller’s conscience, and no right or authority of enforcement rests with any organization or person. All tellers, creators and their agents, or members of an audience are entitled to challenge unethical behaviour, however, preferably in private, but in public if the circumstances are egregious.

Principles of Ethical Telling: Use of Material

  1. No rights attach to the idea of a story. Copyright or performing rights or unremunerated telling rights certainly attach to a text, and sometimes to a version. A teller is free to take the idea of a story and create her or his own version and text as long as they differ in important ways from others’. Plagiarism is unethical. On the other hand, to create a contradictory or dissenting or alternative version of a story, even one using characters and situations of the original, is not unethical.

    The principles in this respect are most important, in theory, but in practice the distinctions are often confused. In doubtful circumstances storytellers should either avoid the material, or seek the appropriate permission (with due diligence and proper documentation).

  2. These guidelines propose, subject to further experience, that a teller who owns (i.e. buys or is given to own) a legal copy of a work has the ethical right to use it for unremunerated telling. The idea that this ethical right extends to any situation where the storyteller has legal access to the material has been suggested, but needs to be approached with caution. This right does not extend to remunerated telling, nor does it imply any right to copy the work or record it for further distribution of any kind, nor does it extend to broadcast telling. A teller who possesses an illegal copy (e.g. an unauthorized photocopy) has no rights to the material at all, and should not tell it.

  3. Performing rights normally, unless otherwise specified, rest with the author. If the author is alive the teller must get permission from the author (or designated agent) for any remunerated or broadcast telling. If the author has been dead for 50 years or more, then the teller may assume the work is in the public domain for storytelling purposes. In some cases, particularly if the work is not otherwise accessible, the collector or publisher of an old work should be treated as the author for the purpose of obtaining performing rights. If the author has been dead for less than 50 years, then performing rights rest with the author’s estate, which should be treated as the author. If the estate cannot be located after due diligence, however, then the work may be treated as if it were in the public domain, at least until the estate comes forward and identifies itself.

  4. Requests for permission for remunerated telling should always include an offer to pay royalties. The minimum ethical offer is 10% of the net economic value of the telling of that specific work to the teller or the producer of the event. Amounts are small. Rough estimates and rules of thumb will do.

  5. A recording or printed version of an oral telling is a copy, and is governed by legal copyright.

  6. A teller has a general and unrestricted obligation to identify the author (and sometimes the source) to the audience, and to acknowledge permission, but may choose the form that best preserves the artistic integrity of the telling.

  7. Tellers wanting to tell certain culturally specific stories are entering an ethical quagmire. Opinions vary, cultural approaches vary even within cultures, and emotions run high. Culturally-specific material should always be approached cautiously and with great respect. Tellers who wish to tell many stories from a tradition carry increased responsibility.

  8. For some culturally-specific stories a teller may be obliged to treat the official custodians of the tradition as if they were the authors or owners of the rights. This applies particularly if the tradition has made a statement, in some form, that it wants to protect its stories and has traditionally done so. If the story is published with specific approval of custodians, then ownership of a legal copy conveys rights to unremunerated telling. Performing rights should then be assumed to rest with the transcriber, translator, editor, collector, or publisher. If the story exists only in oral form, then permission from the teller’s source or a properly authorized custodian should be obtained before any telling, unremunerated or remunerated. The teller is responsible for due diligence in the effort to understand the culture, identify the custodians, and obtain their sanction. A teller who has not undertaken such research is in the same position as a teller who does not own a legal copy, and has no rights.

These Guidelines were approved by the members of SC-CC at the annual gathering in 2003
Forgot password?