Copyright Guide – Protecting yourself and your work from legal dramas

In the digital era, copyright issues are more prevalent than ever. Work can be copied and distributed to large networks in just a few clicks. Unfortunately, many people don’t understand their rights and responsibilities with respect to copyright. We have compiled a short copyright guide to navigating Australian copyright law. Read on for answers to some of the most frequently asked copyright questions.

Copyright Guide: What is copyright?

As aptly described by the Attorney-General’s Department, copyright is:

a type of property that is founded upon a person’s creative skill and labour. Copyright protects the form or way an idea or information is expressed, not the idea or information itself.

Work will only attract the protection of copyright law if it is ‘original’. This means that it must be the product of the author’s intellectual effort – not a copy of another work.

What rights does a copyright owner have?

A copyright holder essentially owns a bundle of exclusive economic and non-economic rights in relation to their copyright material. In general, a copyright owner has the exclusive rights to copy, publish, communicate, and publicly perform the material. The exact nature of these rights will depend on the type of work. Copyright owners also have ‘moral rights’, including the right to attribution of authorship.

It is important to understand that ownership of copyright is different to the physical ownership of the work. For example, an author may own the copyright in a book, but physical copies of the book may be owned by other people.

What laws govern copyright in Australia?

Copyright law is governed by several key pieces of legislation:

  • Copyright Act 1968 (Cth),
  • Copyright Regulations 1969 (Cth),
  • Copyright Tribunal (Procedure) Regulations 1969 (Cth), and
  • Copyright (International Protection) Regulations 1969 (Cth).

Australia is also a party to a range of copyright treaties and conventions, which provide for protection of copyright in other signatory nations.

What material is protected by copyright?

A variety of creative works are protected by copyright laws, including literature, drama, visual art, recordings, films, and music. Copyright also applies to more commercial types of work, such as customer lists, computer software, and engineering drawings. Copyright law doesn’t recognise a multimedia work as a whole, but will recognise each aspect of the work separately. For example, copyright applies to the audio of a song, and separately to the lyrics. Another example is websites, which consist of component parts such as text, logos and artwork.

Do you need to register for copyright?

An author doesn’t need to register for copyright protection. Copyright protection under Australian law will apply automatically. While formal notice or registration is not necessary for copyright protection, it is best practice for copyright owners to display some sort of copyright notice in (or near) their work. The Attorney-General’s Department provides the following copyright guide template:

This work is copyright. Apart from any use permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part may be reproduced by any process, nor may any other exclusive right be exercised, without the permission of [name and address of copyright owner and the year in which the work was made].

Can copyright be forfeited or extinguished by posting a work online?

A common mistaken belief is that material posted on the internet is in the public domain and therefore copyright free. This is not the case – material shared on the internet is subject to copyright law (read our article on copyright law and memes if you want to know more).

Do employees own the copyright in the work they create during their employment?

Usually the creator of a work will be the owner of the copyright. However, if an employee creates copyright work in the course of their employment, the work will be owned by the employer.

When does copyright expire?

The length of the period of copyright protection will depend on a range of factors, including the type of work, time it was made and whether it has been published. A couple of examples of duration for copyright for certain works are outlined  below:

  • Literary, dramatic or musical works:
    • Work published during the life of the author – 70 years after death of author
    • Work that was published posthumously – 70 years after publication
  • Artistic works (other than engravings) – 70 years after the end of the year in which the artist dies (regardless of whether the work has been published)

How can copyright be infringed?

Copyright is infringed when any act that the copyright owner has the exclusive right to do is done by someone else. For example, it would infringe the copyright in a work if someone other than the owner were to reproduce the work without the copyright owner’s permission or an applicable defence. Defences to copyright infringement include ‘fair dealing’ for a particular purpose, such as research, criticism, parody, satire, or reporting news.

The whole work does not need to be reproduced for infringement to arise. Infringement of copyright occurs if a substantial portion of the work is reproduced or used. A portion of a work is ‘substantial’ if it is an important or recognisable part of the work. For example, use of a backing track resembling Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ was held to be infringement as the backing track is an extremely recognisable part of the song.

Can you copy 10% of a work without infringing copyright?

It is a commonly held belief that 10% of a work can be copied without infringing copyright. However, the application of the ‘10% rule’ is limited to the fair dealing exception, which allows a ‘reasonable portion’ of a work to be copied for the purposes of research or study. As noted by the Attorney-General’s department:

A reasonable portion is 10 per cent of the pages of a work more than 10 pages, or 10 per cent of the words of a work in electronic form or one chapter if the work is divided into chapters.

Can copyright be bought and sold?

Like any property, copyright can be purchased, sold, assigned, licensed, left in a will, passed on or donated. However, the moral rights in a work (i.e. right to attribution) will always remain with the original author.

We hope you found this copyright guide helpful.

Want to know more about copyright? Looking for an experienced solicitor in Newcastle, Sydney or the Hunter to advise you on intellectual property law? Call us on (02) 4929 7002, email us or complete an enquiry form.

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