What is copyright?


In Australia, copyright law is Commonwealth legislation, the Copyright Act 1968 and its associated Regulations.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a legal right given to the authors or creators of works.

Under copyright law, the copyright owner has a number of exclusive rights including the right to publish the work, control copying, prepare derivative works and perform of their work as well as the right to make the material available online.

  • Copyright is really a set of rights – copyright owners have economic and moral rights as well as legal rights.
  • Copyright law aims to protect the creative work of the copyright owner from unauthorised use by others.
  • Copyright law also tries to balance this right with the general public’s right to access information.

What does copyright protect?

Copyright protects the written expression of an idea or concept - it does not protect the actual idea or concept itself. Copyright doesn’t give the author of a work a monopoly over the ideas or information expressed in that work – anyone can use the ideas contained in a work provided they do not use the exact words used by the author to describe the idea or concept.

There isn’t necessarily a connection between the ownership of an item and the ownership of copyright in the item. When you buy a book or an artwork you do not automatically acquire the copyright in that book or artwork. The copyright remains with the author or the artist unless there has been an agreement to transfer ownership of copyright.

The Copyright Act protects eight different categories of "works" and "subject matter other than works":

Literary works
books, letters, articles in periodicals, newspapers and magazines, poems, assignments, theses
Dramatic works
plays, film and television scripts
Musical works
notated music, i.e. scores and lyrics to a song
Artistic works
photos, paintings, drawings, maps, charts, diagrams
Subject matter other than works
DVDs, videos, TV programs, TV advertisements, short films, full length theatrical releases
Sound recordings
Aggregate of the sounds embodied in a record or CD
Communication to the public delivered by a broadcasting service
Dance, circus act, puppet theatre, poetry reading, music concert

Copyright also exists in the published edition of a book and protects the typographical layout and font of a book

Note: Works in the category of ‘subject matter other than works’ are aggregations of a number of separate works. Copyright usually exists independently in each of the underlying works as well as the combined work itself, e.g., in the case of a sound recording or CD there may be separate copyright owners in the music, the arrangement the lyrics, the performance and the production of the sound recording itself.

Generally, copyright doesn’t protect the following:

  • names, titles and slogans as these are not usually considered to be substantial works which are the result of sufficient skill and labour. However, other forms of legislation such as trademark and trade practices may be relevant.
  • ideas or concepts – copyright just protects the expression of the idea or concept.
  • basic facts such as names and addresses are usually not protected by copyright although the methodology used to arrange them in a database may be protected.

Obtaining copyright protection

Copyright protection is automatic under Australian law from the moment you place your work in a material form. This includes writing down, recording or filming your work. A work doesn’t have to be published to be protected by copyright – copyright also protects unpublished works.

Australia does not have a system of copyright registration, so a work does not have to go through a registration process before it can be protected by copyright.

There are some basic criteria that a work must meet to receive copyright protection in Australia, including:

  • a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work must be an original work and not just a copy of another work
  • the work must be made by a resident or citizen of Australia
  • the work must have either been made or first published in Australia.

Copyright overseas

Do works published overseas receive copyright protection in Australia?

Generally, yes. Works published in countries belonging to the major international copyright conventions and treaties receive the same copyright protection as those published in Australia. Major publishing countries such as Britain, the United States and Germany belong to these conventions.

Do Australian works receive copyright protection overseas?

Works published in Australia generally receive copyright protection in overseas countries. To establish the level of protection that an Australian work would receive in a particular country you would need to be familiar with the copyright laws of that country. Note that in some countries it is necessary to register a work to ensure it receives full copyright protection.

Owners' rights

The Copyright Act gives the copyright owner a number of exclusive rights in relation to their works including:

  • the right to control the reproduction of their work
  • moral rights in their work
  • performers’ rights in their work

Reproduction rights

This group of rights allows a copyright owner to control the reproduction of their work. Copyright owners have the right to:

Usually you need the copyright owner’s permission before you can reproduce their work without infringing their copyright. However, the Copyright Act contains some exceptions which permit copying of limited amounts of material without the permission of the copyright owner. See the following sections of the website for a discussion of these exceptions.

Copyright owners can exercise these rights themselves or they may give someone else permission to exercise those rights. This permission is usually referred to as assigning rights or granting a licence. Copyright owners often grant a licence to permit use of their work in return for the payment of fees or royalties. The licence will usually set out the conditions such as the purposes for which the work can be used and the duration of the licence.

  • to publish their work
  • to make copies of their work
  • to make their work available online by placing it on a website
  • to perform their work in public
  • to make adaptations of their work including translations of literary works, arrangements of musical works and sampling parts of musical works

Moral rights

The Copyright Act grants individual copyright owners three main moral rights:

  • the right of attribution – the right to be identified as the author of the work
  • the right against false attribution - the right to take action against false attribution
  • the right of integrity – the right to object to derogatory treatment of their work which prejudicially affects their reputation or honour

Moral rights recognise that a work can be an extension of the creator’s personality and that the relationship between the creator and their work should be respected.

What types of works have moral rights?

Moral rights apply to most types of material protected by copyright such as literary, dramatic, artistic and musical works. From 26 July 2007 performers have moral rights in their live and recorded performances.

Moral rights do NOT apply to:

  • broadcasts
  • published editions

Who owns moral rights?

  • moral rights are only granted to individual authors and creators. Organisations, corporate bodies and companies are not granted moral rights.
  • moral rights remain with the creator even though that person may have assigned their copyright to another party and may no longer be the copyright owner.
  • creators cannot sell their moral rights but they can consent to others carrying out actions which would otherwise infringe their moral rights

Performers’ rights

Under the Copyright Act performers have three main categories of rights:

  • the right to control recording and communication of their performances
  • ownership of copyright in sound recordings of their performances
  • moral rights in their live performances

You may infringe a performer’s rights if you carry out the following activities without their permission:

  • record their performance,
  • copy an unauthorised recording of their performance,
  • place an unauthorised recording of their performance online

What performances are covered?

The following types of performances are covered by performers’ rights:

  • dramatic works including improvised works and puppet shows
  • musical works including improvisations such as jazz
  • literary works including the recitation of an improvised literary work
  • dance performances
  • circus acts, variety shows or similar performances
  • an expression of folklore including cultural material

Some performances are excluded from protection and can be recorded without the consent of the performers. These include reading the news, participating in sporting activities, performances by members of an audience and some performances by teachers and students during the course of educational instruction.

Performers’ rights apply to performances which occurred on or after 1 October 1989.

Performers’ rights are complex and for additional information see Australian Copyright Council Information Sheet on Performer’s Rights or contact the .