Copyright guide for students

What is copyright?

Copyright is a legal right given to authors or creators of original works. The owner of copyright in a work has a number of exclusive rights including the right to control publication and copying of their work, as well as the right to make the work available online. Copyright owners also have moral rights and performers' rights.

In Australia copyright law is controlled by Commonwealth legislation, the Copyright Act 1968.

Who owns copyright?

Usually the author or creator of a work is the copyright owner. There are some exceptions to this rule so if you need more information on ownership of copyright see Who owns copyright.

As a student of the University of Sydney, you will own copyright in any works you create such as essays, assignments and your thesis. If someone, including a member of staff, asks for permission to use your assignment or photograph, say on a University website, you should remember that while it may be a great compliment, it is your intellectual property and that you should consider the request carefully. It is always sensible to sign a release form setting out the types of uses permitted and to obtain advice if you have any concerns.

If you produce a work as part of a group project, the copyright will be owned jointly by the members of the group. See the University of Sydney (Intellectual Property) Rule 2002 (PDF) for more details on the University’s IP policy.

Australia does not have a system of copyright registration. Once your work has been placed in a material form, that is, written down, recorded or filmed, it is protected by copyright.

How long does copyright last?

Copyright in published works doesn’t last forever. In the case of published books, plays, art works and photographs, copyright lasts for the life of the author or creator and for 70 years after the year of their death. For other types of works, such as films and sound recordings, copyright lasts from the year the work was first published plus 70 years.

The rules relating to copyright ownership are complex and vary for types of material, whether a Federal or State Government was involved in the publication and so on. Copyright has expired in most published works if the creator died before 1 January 1955, but remember that copyright in unpublished works lasts forever.

The rules for the duration of copyright changed on 1 January 2005, so if you have a query, check the Australian Copyright Council’s information sheet called Duration of Copyright (Duration G023) or consult the Director of Copyright Services.

What can I copy?

Usually you need the copyright owner’s permission to copy their work, but the Copyright Act has some exemptions, such as the fair dealing provisions, which permit limited copying for a range of reasons, including research or study, without infringing copyright.

As a student, you will probably rely on the research or study exception provision to carry out most of your copying. This allows you to copy limited amounts from copyright works for your course needs, to prepare a research paper or essay, or to write a thesis without infringing copyright.


How much can I copy for research or study?

For research or study, you can copy a reasonable portion, which is defined as:

  • one chapter or 10% of the pages from a book
  • a single article from a periodical issue; more if needed for the same research or course.

You can copy more if the material is out of copyright or you have permission from the copyright owner.

Copying images, diagrams, films, DVDs & CDs for research or study

Fair dealing also applies to other types of works such as diagrams, artworks, films, TV programs and CDs. However, the amount you can copy for research or study from these works isn’t specified in the Copyright Act.

You need to consider five factors before deciding if your copying constitutes fair dealing. These factors also apply if you want to copy more than a reasonable portion of a literary or dramatic work or notated music.

Copying from the internet for research or study

It's a myth that material on the internet isn’t protected by copyright and that you can copy or download whatever you like.

Material on the internet is protected by copyright and is subject to copyright law.

Always check the terms of use section of the website before downloading or printing material. Usually, you will be able to download or print for personal use or research and study. If terms of use are not specified, you can copy a reasonable portion, that is, one chapter or 10% of the pages. If the work is not paginated, you can copy 10% of the words in the document.

Under fair dealing you usually can’t:

  • make additional copies of copyright material to share with friends or class mates
  • upload copies of someone else’s work to blogs or websites, such as YouTube or MySpace: only the copyright owner has the right to do this
  • post your assignments containing extracts from copyright works onto public websites, as this is considered to be a publication of the work: an exclusive right of the copyright owner.

If you need to share information resources with other members of a seminar group or project team, try the following:

  • if the information is in electronic format, post the URL or citation on your blog, website or shared server space: sharing the URL is not a copyright infringement
  • if this is not possible, ask your lecturer or tutor to arrange for the material to be made available via Library's Course Readings Collection
  • obtain permission from the copyright owners to use the material.

Copying for presentations in seminars & classes

Sometimes you may want to include sections from copyright works in a presentation to a class or tutorial as part of your course work, for example, showing a section of a TV program or DVD, or using diagrams and photos from books or articles in a PowerPoint presentation.

This will usually be covered under copying for "research or study" or "criticism and review" but remember, that any copying of material is restricted to these purposes. You cannot upload the presentation onto a blog or website as that would mean that the copying you carried out would no longer be for research or study.

Remember to acknowledge the sources of any material you use in your presentations.

Including extracts in essays and assignments

As you write essays and assignments you will probably want to include extracts from publications such as quotations, diagrams, illustrations and maps. You may also want to include clips from movies and TV programs or short extracts from CDs and sound recordings.

You can do this, under the research or study exception in the Copyright Act, provided:

  • you observe the limits on copying and carry out the checks outlined above.
  • your use of the copied material is restricted to research or study.
  • you don’t use the material for other purposes, such as publication or performance.
  • you acknowledge the author and source of your excerpts. This is now a legal requirement under the moral rights clauses in the Copyright Act. Failure to acknowledge sources could leave you open to action under the Copyright Act and could also lead to allegations of plagiarism.
    For more information about plagiarism, visit the All your own work website.

Making two or three copies of your essay or assignment for assessment purposes is allowed under the research or study exception.


Publishing your work

Been invited to publish your work or decided to submit one of your assignments to a journal?

You will now need to consider the issue of obtaining permission for any copyright material that you quote in your work.

Generally, you don’t need to obtain permission if you paraphrase or summarise someone else’s work, unless you follow the structure of the original work closely. However, you will still need to acknowledge the source of the work.

Note the following points if your work is being published in Australia:

  • under Australian copyright law there isn’t a minimum number of words you can use in a publication before obtaining the copyright owner’s permission
  • there have been a number of court cases in this area and the legal advice is to play it safe and obtain permission
  • for more information see the Australian Copyright Council’s Information Sheet Quotes and extracts: copyright obligations

If your work is to be published by an international publisher:

  • the copyright legislation in the country of publication will determine the permission you have to obtain
  • some UK and US publishers allow you to quote a minimum number of words from a publication (often between 400-500 words) before they require you to obtain permission
  • most publishers require you to obtain permission to use photographs, images, diagrams or charts from copyright works
  • be guided by your publisher – visit their website or ask your editor for advice.

Obtaining permission or clearances to use material in publications is time consuming, so it’s worth noting these few points now, as they will save you time later:

  • keep accurate citations – you’ll then be ready to go when you need to contact publishers
  • remember, you don’t need permission to use out of copyright works. If you have a choice, use works which are out of copyright
  • look for works where the copyright owner has given a licence for non-commercial use, such as items published under a Creative Commons licence
  • check the terms of use for websites, as the owners may give you a licence to re-use material for non-commercial purposes
  • see Publishing your work in the Performing & publishing section for more information.

If you are making your work available on an internal University website, or online learning system (such as WebCT or BlackBoard), you will be asked to complete this student consent form (doc).

Using music

The University has a separate agreement, the Music Licence, which allows the performance and use of music and sound recordings from the repertoires of the music societies involved in the Licence – AMCOS, APRA, ARIA and PPCA – for more information see the Music Licence section.

The Music Licence does not allow individual students to copy CDs and sound recordings, but it does permit lecturers to make copies of CDs and compilations of recordings needed for educational purposes. You should discuss this option with your lecturer.

However, the Music Licence does allow you to synchronise music and sound recordings from the societies’ repertoires to a film or video you produce for an assignment or as part of your course requirements. The film or video can be shown for assessment purposes as long as only University of Sydney staff and students are present.

The Music Licence does not allow any downloading of music, so if you want to put your film or video online it can only be streamed to University of Sydney staff and students. Downloading of the material is not permitted if music covered by the Music Licence is included.

If you want to make wider use of the video, e.g., enter it in a festival or competition, you will need to obtain a licence from APRA to use the music. You will also need to obtain permission from the copyright owners to use any additional third party copyright material included in the video.

What about downloading movies & music from the internet?

There are many internet sites offering free downloads of music, TV shows, movies and computer software. Unfortunately, many of these are illegal sites and much of the material on offer is pirated and has been made available without the copyright owner’s permission.

It can be very tempting to download music, movies and TV shows but it is dangerous, as you may be infringing copyright and committing a crime. The movie, music and software industries actively protect their intellectual property and use of file sharing services can be traced easily.

The University’s Policy on the Use of ICT Resources (PDF) prohibits the use of University ICT resources to download and store copyright material which is not properly licensed. The University reserves the right to monitor the use of ICT resources, and penalties can be imposed for improper use of University resources. These can include loss of access to ICT facilities, disciplinary action and even suspension of candidature.

Don’t risk your career by illegal downloading of music, movies and software. Play it safe and use licensed, legal websites when you download.

Remember you can legally copy a CD or recording that you own onto your iPod, MP3 player, hard disk or car stereo for your own private and domestic use under the Copyright Act.

Plagiarism and moral rights

Moral rights give copyright owners the right to be identified as the creator of their work and the right to object if their work is subjected to derogatory treatment which could harm their reputation.

What this means for you as a student, is that you should always acknowledge the author of any work you quote in an essay or assignment. This is good academic practice and will protect you from allegations of plagiarism. If you alter an artwork or image for research or study, you should acknowledge the original work and not subject that work to derogatory treatment.

For more information on the University’s plagiarism policy, visit the All your own work website.

Need more information?

Check the Copyright Basics section of the University Copyright website or contact Coordinator, University Copyright Services on 935 12888 or by email at