3.7 What is copyright?

Copyright is an automatic legal IP protection that does not require registration or fees. It protects the owner’s original expression of ideas and information, not the ideas and information themselves.

In Australia, copyright protection commences instantly upon documented novel expression of ideas and information. Copyright is distinct from the item that contains it, and they often have different owners; e.g. an author may own the copyright for the text in a book but may not own any physical copies of the book.

Copyright is the type of IP protection best suited to artistic creations, using that term broadly. Drawings, art, literature, music, film, broadcasts and computer programs are examples of items that contain protectable expressions.

Legal rights

Among other rights, a copyright owner has exclusive economic rights to copy, publish, communicate, adapt, license, sell, and publicly perform the copyrighted material. Creators are not necessarily copyright owners, particularly if they create their work under an employment contract.

In Australia, for works made publicly available, the term of protection ends 70 years after the creator’s death. For works not made public until after the death of the creator, the term generally ends 70 years after first publication. Some terms last indefinitely. Except for filmmakers, creators’ moral rights endure for the same term as economic rights.

In Australia, the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications is responsible for copyright management and policy, not IP Australia.

Moral rights

Creators have moral (non-economic) legal rights, including the right to be attributed (credited) as the creator, and the right to prevent others altering or treating a work in any way that could negatively impact the creator’s reputation. Creators have moral rights even if they do not own copyright for their work. They may not sell or completely waive their rights.

Copyright notice

The copyright symbol © is no longer useful in Australia. Copyright owners are advised to place a non-mandatory copyright notice on their work as best practice. There is no set form or wording for the notice. Examples or templates for different contexts can be found online.

International treaties

Australia is a party to international copyright treaties and conventions. Australian citizens or residents are entitled to the protection given by the copyright laws of other countries that are also parties to these agreements. Those laws may differ from Australian laws, e.g. in some other countries, unlike in Australia, registration is required. Australia offers reciprocal rights to non-Australians.

The importance of copyright

Copyright is hugely important for artists, authors, musicians, performers, designers, and all whose work’s value is usually in the way it is expressed, rather than in an idea or a physical item, so other types of IP protection do not apply.

For example, registered designs are limited to the visual appearance of a product, and so do not apply to an author seeking to protect the text of his/her book, or to a musician’s song, or to the complex content of a film.

With copyright, owners can charge fees for others to use or purchase their work. If copyright did not exist, it would be extremely difficult for artists, authors, etc, to build a career or reputation from their work.

The Australian Copyright Council is a non-profit organisation established in 1968 to promote the value of copyright.

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Quick quiz – Q1: While unemployed, you wrote and published a new dramatic play. You have the right to control which theatre company performs it. True or false?

CORRECT: Copyright existed automatically when the play was documented (published). Others cannot perform the play without the copyright owner’s consent. Since you created it without any employment contract, you are the copyright owner.
INCORRECT: Try again.

Quick quiz – Q2: In the scenario immediately above, you may sell your copyright to a theatre company. True or false?

CORRECT: Like all IP, copyright is an asset, so it can be assigned. The fact that the copyright required no registration is irrelevant.
INCORRECT: Try again.

Quick quiz – Q3: In the scenario immediately above, selling your copyright means the purchaser may take credit for writing your play. True or false?

INCORRECT: Try again
CORRECT: Your economic rights under copyright are assigned by sale, but not the moral rights, which are personal. Moral rights include correct attribution of authorship.