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What is copyright?

Copyright is a collection of exclusive legal rights in media such as music, literary works, computer programs and books. Those exclusive rights usually include, amongst others, the rights of reproduction, communication to the public, and adaptation. In Australia, copyright law is contained in the Copyright Act (Cth) 1968 and decisions of courts.

What does copyright protect?

Copyright protects a range of material, including songs, plays, lyrics, poems, speeches, sound recordings and broadcasts. It gives protection by providing the owner of copyright with certain exclusive rights.

It should be noted that copyright protects the way an idea is expressed, but not the idea itself. So an idea presented in a song, for example, is not copyright, however the lyrics of the song are copyright. If another songwriter uses the idea but not the lyrics, then that is not a breach of copyright.

How long does copyright last?

This depends on the type of work. For songs, literary works (books, poems etc) and artistic works the copyright lasts for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years following the author’s death. In the case of sound recordings, films, and anonymous publications the copyright is counted 70 years from the date of publication.

Who is the copyright owner?

Generally it is the author who is the first owner of copyright in that work. However, there are a number of important exceptions to this, including employees (but not volunteers and freelancers), commissioned works and where there is a contractual agreement to the contrary in place.

How is copyright protection granted?

Copyright protection is automatic and arises the instance it is created. The author does not need to register the work or complete any formalities.

One item may have several copyrights

Several different copyrights may exist in the one work. This can lead to a situation where there may be more than one person who has copyright in a single work. For example, in the case of a music CD, there can be separate copyrights pertaining to the music, the lyrics of that music, the CD cover artwork and the sound recording itself. To broadcast the CD without infringing copyright, permission is likely to be needed for each of these rights (except for the copyright in the artwork).

Moral rights

The author of a work has additional rights, independent of the rights provided by copyright. These are known as moral rights and are the right to be attributed as the author of the work and right not have the work distorted or treated in a way prejudicial to his honour or reputation.

Foreign Works

Copyrights of works of other countries are protected in Australia, as if such works are Australian works.


Copyright is infringed when someone deals with the work in a way that infringes one of the exclusive rights given to the owner of the work. A copyright owner can take legal action against any person who infringes the copyright in the work. The copyright owner is entitled to remedies by way of injunctions, damages and accounts. Copyright infringement may also amount to a criminal offence.


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