What is copyright?

Copyright is a type of legal protection for people who express ideas or information in certain forms, such as through writing, music and visual images. Copyright protection is provided under the Commonwealth Copyright Act 1968, which confers certain property rights on the creator of such a work. There are two basic categories of subject matter that are protected:

  • artistic, literary (including computer programmes), musical and dramatic works; and
  • broadcasts, films and sound recordings.

To be protected, a work must be both original and in some tangible or material form (for example, written down or saved to a computer disk). It can’t just be an idea. Original means that the work comes from the author and that it is more than a mere copy of other material. Original does not mean it has to be a completely new invention or creation.

Even a compilation of pre-existing work may have copyright protection, if the author has combined the material in some new way (for example, a new collection of classic poetry).

When a piece of work is created, the person or organisation that owns copyright on the work can decide how the work will be reproduced and/or communicated. Copyright confers various rights allowing the copyright owner to assign, licence or even prohibit the use of their work by another party. Assigning rights gives the copyright to a new owner. Licensing allows a third party to use the material. Both can be undertaken with certain conditions or exemptions agreed to.

In Australia, copyright is automatic once an original work is written down or recorded. It does not have to be applied for, it is free, and in most cases, applies for 50 years after the creator's death.

A copyright notice such as:

© Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety, 2017

It is not necessary, although it can be useful to highlight the copyright of the owner to other people.

Areas protected by copyright include:

  • written material
  • musical and artistic works
  • computer programs
  • compilations
  • film
  • recordings
  • broadcasts
  • publications
  • performances

Areas not protected by copyright include:

  • ideas
  • concepts
  • styles
  • techniques
  • information

Please note that copyright protects the way or form in which an idea or information is expressed, not the idea or information itself.