Understanding copyright is fundamental for educators and researchers who create and engage with a range of material on a daily basis. While copyright can be complicated, there are some simple facts that are critical to the work of a University that should be understood by all staff and students.

The information below gives a basic introduction to copyright, what it protects and how the protection works.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a legal way of protecting creative works. In Australia, copyright law is contained in the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth).

Copyright law grants exclusive rights to the author of creative material such as text, artistic works, music, computer programs, sound recordings and films so that only they can determine how their material is copied and used by others. This means that copyright owners can legally prevent others from copying and using their material (such as performing or communicating their work) without their permission.

In Australia, copyright protection is automatic. This means that a work is protected as soon as it is created in material form (i.e. writing it down or recording the work in some way).

Copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, styles or techniques. For example, copyright will not protect an idea for a film or book, but it will protect a script for the film or even a storyboard for the film.

What material is protected?

The Copyright Act divides the materials protected by copyright law into two categories: 'works' and 'other subject matter'.

  • Artistic Works: paintings, graphics, cartoons, etchings, maps, diagrams, photographs, charts
  • Literary Works: novels, text books,  journals, poems, song lyrics, newspaper and magazine articles, anthologies, computer software
  • Musical Works: song music, film score, melodies
  • Dramatic Works: plays, mime, choreography
Other Subject Matter
  • Films: cinematographic films, video recordings, DVDs, television programs, MP4 files
  • Sound Recordings: CDs, MP3 files, cassette tapes, vinyl recordings
  • Broadcasts: radio and television broadcasts
  • Published Editions - typesetting (the format and look of a publication)


Who owns copyright?

The owner of the copyright in works will generally be the author of the material such as the writer, artist or composer of the work.

Other Subject Matter

The owner of copyright in sound recordings, films and broadcasts will usually be the maker of the material such as the producer of a film, the broadcaster of a broadcast and the record company that compiled that recording.

There are a number of exceptions to this general rule of copyright ownership. For example, copyright ownership may be varied by contract where the copyright owner agrees to assign their copyright to another party.  Also, an employer will usually own copyright in works produced by the employee in the course of their employment.

Copyright owner rights

Copyright law gives the copyright owner a number of exclusive rights to use the material. This includes the right to:

  • Copy/reproduce the material (photocopy, scan, upload/download or copy to a USB);
  • Publish the material (supply copies to the public);
  • Perform the material in public (perform a play or play a film/sound recording to the public); and
  • Communicate the material (email or make it available online such as on the Internet/intranet)

If you wish to do any of these things with material protected by copyright, you must obtain the permission of the copyright owner unless an exception applies.

Copyright & the public domain

Once the period of copyright protection expires, the work is in the 'public domain'. This means that anyone can copy the work without having first to obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Some people mistakenly believe that once a work is published or available for free from the Internet, it is in the 'public domain'. This is not true. Publicly available Internet material, such as an online newspaper articles or images on Google or Flickr, are all protected by copyright.

Public domain works are works where the period of copyright protection has expired.

Click here for practical ways of managing copyright


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