At Creative Artists Law, we often get asked questions about copyright, so we thought we would put together this simple guide to answer some of the most common simple queries that we receive.
This information is intended for guidance purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.
Last updated: 21 March 2017
What is copyright?
Copyright is a form of intellectual property that grants exclusive rights to certain authors and makers of certain works.
For example, if you compose an original song, that will be copyrighted to you as the author of that song. You will have the right to, amongst other things, sell that song, license it, as well to prevent others from using your song.
How long is copyright for?
Since 2005, for published works in Australia, copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the author of the work (previously it had been for life + 50 years).
So, for instance, if you wrote a song in 2017 and lived until the year 2084 then copyright would last, provided the law was not changed in the future, until the year 2154, which would be, out of interest, the year Jake Sully lands on the moon of Pandora in Avatar.
Certain other subject-matters will have different durations of copyright, for instance, for an artistic work of the Crown, copyright will last for 50 years from the end of the year when such artistic work was made.
Globally, most countries have similar periods of copyright protection that they afford to authors, typically varying between 50 to 70 years. In the United States it's life+70 years and in Mexico rises to life+100 years.
What happens after copyright expires?
A work will be in the public domain and anyone will be able to use it freely.
Who owns the copyright in a work?
Typically the author(s) of that work, however, there are exemptions, if a work is created in the course of employment for someone else, on commission or on assignment then the author may not have ownership rights.
When considering who is the author of a work, it may be that a work is a collaborative work, for instance, where multiple people (e.g. a composer, lyricists) are involved in writing a song. In such scenarios, it's a good idea to have a written agreement to cover how rights are to be divided
Do I have to put copyright labels on my work, such as ‘(©+ name of copyright owner + year)?
Copyright is automatic and applies upon creation of a work. Therefore, it is not necessary to label work in such a way, however, you may still wish to do so as such an identifier may serve as a deterrent to those who would otherwise copy your work.
Does copyright apply if my work is not published?
Yes, it will apply for 70 years from the time it is first published or performed.
Is there a registration system for copyright in Australia?
There is none at present and it is not required. In some other countries such as the United States of America, however, you can register copyright to gain certain rights (such as for instance to bring an infringement suit in a Federal Court).
I’ve heard about a ‘fair-use’ exemption, does that allow me to use copyrighted material?
Fair use is a copyright exemption that exists under US law. The closest equivalent in Australia at present is our ‘fair dealing’ exemptions. Fair dealing, however, is more restrictive in its scope and is limited to specific prescribed purposes. There is a push from certain sectors for an Australian fair use legal doctrine.