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The Basics of Copyright Law in Australia

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of intellectual property that protects the creator of an original work (or other subject matter) by granting exclusive rights in that work. These rights allow creators to control how their work is used and provides creators a means to commercialise their works.

Who is the owner of copyright?

Copyright is exclusive meaning that the rights are vested only in the copyright owner, which is generally the creator of the work. There are some exceptions, however, such as work created for the purposes of employment. In some instances, copyright may be co-owned, for example, copyright in musical works created by a band are often (though not always) owned jointly in equal or unequal shares.

What rights are granted by copyright?

Copyright allows a creator (or someone authorised by the creator) to:

(a) reproduce their work in a material form;
(b) publish their work;
(c) communicate their work in public;
(d) perform their work in public; and
(e) make an adaption of their work.

In Australia, copyright automatically arises in works capable of copyright protection. This means that a creator does not have to do anything, such as register their interests in the work, to be protected by copyright.

What is protected by copyright?

Under the Copyright Act, copyright subsists in “works” which is defined as “literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works”. Typically, this includes works such as paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures, novels, poems, databases, computer programs, musical compositions, screenplays, etc. Copyright also protects certain subject matter other than “works” such as films, sound recordings, broadcasts and published editions.

To attract copyright protection, the work (or other subject matter) must satisfy the following important conditions:

(1) material form. Copyright only protects those works that are expressed in some way, whether it be written down, recorded or otherwise physically presentable in some form, as compared to ideas, concepts, or methods. That is, copyright protects the expression of an idea, rather than the idea itself.

(2) original. Copyright only protects those works that are a product of the creator’s skill, judgement, selection, labour, experience and expertise, and not just a mere copy of another person’s work.

How long does copyright last?

For “works”, copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the author of the work. If the author or creator of the work is not known, then copyright protection will last for 70 years after the work was first published. For subject matter other than works, copyright will last between 25-70 years from publication, depending on the subject matter.

Take-away points

  • copyright protection is automatic and free;
  • usually the creator or the author of a work is the owner of the copyright;
  • copyright applies to a broad range of works and other subject matters and is the primary source of legal protection for creators, authors, and artists.

    If you would like to know more about this article or copyright protection, please do not hesitate to get in contact with the team at W3IP Law on 1300 776 614 or 0451 951 528.

    Sam Gilbert, IP and Technology Consultant, B.A., LL.B  University of Technology, Sydney

    Disclaimer. The material in this post represents general information only and should not be taken to be legal advice.

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