About copyright

What is copyright?

Copyright is a legal right that gives copyright owners the right to control how their work is used. These uses include copying, publication, performance, adaptation and communicating the work to the public (for example, by making it available online). If you are not the owner of copyright, you risk infringing copyright if you use material in these ways and others, without first obtaining the permission of the copyright owner. Copyright must therefore be considered when you use or copy items from the Library’s collection.

The duration of copyright for published materials is generally 70 years from the death of the creator, or (for sound recordings and films) from the date of publication. For unpublished materials, the duration may be even longer.

Why do we have a copyright system?

  • To provide an important incentive for the creation and distribution of intellectual and creative works
  • To provide a framework for rewarding authors for their labours.

What types of works does copyright cover?

Copyright applies to many different types of works, including:

  • Architectural plans
  • Art works
  • Books, newspapers and periodicals
  • Broadcasts (both sound and television)
  • Choreographic shows
  • Compilations and databases
  • Computer games
  • Design drawings and plans
  • Diaries and letters
  • Films
  • Manuscripts
  • Maps
  • Musical scores
  • Photographs
  • Plays
  • Published editions
  • Screenplays and scripts
  • Software
  • Song lyrics
  • Sound recordings
  • Websites

In Australia, copyright applies to both published and unpublished works, and protection is automatic. There is no copyright registration process and an individual does not need to claim copyright by including the copyright symbol  © and their name on a work. Copyright is not dependent on aesthetic or literary merit and can protect materials that are utilitarian, short or mundane.

Which copyright law applies?

In Australia, copyright law, including all amendments, is set out in the Copyright Act 1968 (Commonwealth). Australian copyright law applies to any copying done in Australia, even if the owner of copyright in the work you are copying is a citizen of another country. Reciprocal arrangements between countries mean that copyright in foreign works is also recognised in Australia (and vice versa). If you are not located in Australia and you are copying digitised content from the Library’s website, you must follow the copyright law of the country in which you reside.

Who owns copyright?

The default rule in the Copyright Act is that copyright in a work is owned by its creator or maker. However, this basic position can be changed in various ways. Copyright owners can transfer their copyright, for example where an author assigns copyright to a publisher. If a creator made the work as part of their job, their employer will generally own copyright. Similarly, for some commissioned items, the commissioner is deemed to be the copyright owner. If a copyright owner dies, their copyright forms part of their estate and can therefore be bequeathed by will. Copyright in works made by, or under the direction or control of, an Australian federal or state government agency is owned by that agency.

Significantly, the Library does not own copyright in most of the material in its collections. Copyright ownership is distinct from physical ownership. For example, even though the Library may own a painting or manuscript, the Library does not necessarily have the right to provide you with a copy of it. In some cases we can, however, provide information that may help you contact a copyright owner to request permission to copy and use material.

It is possible for more than one copyright to exist in a single item. For example in a sound recording, the composer may own copyright in the music, the lyricist in the words, a photographer in a photo used on the cover, musicians in the performance, and a production company in the recording and production of the performance. It is also possible to have more than one owner of a single copyright, for instance when two or more individuals co-author a book.

How long does copyright last?

For literary, dramatic and musical works published during the lifetime of the author, copyright lasts for 70 years from the end of the year in which the author died. For published sound recordings and films, the duration of copyright is 70 years from the end of the year in which the recording or film was published. Where such items remain unpublished, the copyright term may not commence until publication takes place. In contrast, for artistic works, copyright lasts for the life of the artist plus 70 years, and publication status is irrelevant.

What are moral rights?

Australian copyright law sets out a separate and additional set of rights called moral rights. Moral rights give certain creators and performers the right:

  • to have their authorship or performance attributed to them;
  • not to have their work falsely attributed to someone else; and
  • not to have their work treated in a derogatory way.

Moral rights should always be considered if you are re-using and altering works (for example, through editing, cropping or colourising) and you should ensure that attributions are clear and reasonably prominent.

Moral rights generally last until the copyright in the work expires. Moral rights cannot be transferred or waived, although creators can provide written consents to acts that would otherwise infringe their moral rights.

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