In its simplest form, copyright is the right to copy or reproduce a written work.
Copyright is the author’s form of ownership. However, it means more than the simple ownership of a physical manuscript and the right to photocopy and sell it.
Copyright is a bundle of rights, including the exclusive right to:
- reproduce the work in a material form
- publish the work
- perform the work in public
- broadcast the work
- cause the work to be transmitted to the subscribers of a diffusion service (for example, sent by email)
- make an adaptation of the work.
Each of these rights can be treated separately, and can be sold or licensed to different people. The important thing to keep in mind is that copyright can only exist for a work that has a concrete form, such as a newspaper article, a novel manuscript or a play script.
Copyright does not protect ideas. For example, if you discuss a story idea with a friend, that friend is under no obligation to recognise your ownership of that story idea. If you want to protect it, you have to write or record it in some form. But be aware that, while copyright infringements do occur, they are relatively rare.
Copyright protection is automatic
This means that the author of a work automatically owns the copyright on it. Put simply, if you write it, it belongs to you.
There is one important exception to this: if an author creates the work in the course of his or her regular employment, copyright will usually belong to the employer, not to the author. This generally applies to journalists, but is equally true for employees writing letters, reports, articles for work-related publications, and so on.
Copyright in Australia requires no registration or payments. Be wary of organisations that offer to register copyright or materials in return for a fee.
The copyright symbol “©” is not required to establish your legal rights. However, it is an assertion of your ownership and tells anyone who reads it that you know your rights. When used, it is followed by your name and the year of first publication (e.g. © Anne Author 2002).
Copyright lasts for the author’s lifetime, plus fifty years.
The Australian Copyright Council advises that:
‘If there is a dispute about who created a copyright work, which cannot be resolved by negotiation, it may need to be resolved by a court. A court considers all the relevant evidence when determining a dispute. The most important evidence is usually the creator’s evidence and the evidence of the witnesses to the creation of the work. Such cases are extremely rare.’
The Australian Copyright Council advises you keep dated drafts, plans and outlines of your work. In the past, people who want to give themselves some insurance against copyright infringement have mailed their manuscript to themselves by Registered Post, and when it arrives, left the envelope unopened in a safe place. The date on the envelope provides some proof that the manuscript was written before that date. Whether or not this is enough of an insurance is unknown; it has never been tested in an Australian court.
The Australian Writers' Guild provides a registration service for scripts.
Contracts: Assigning and licensing copyright
Authors can either assign or license any of the rights to their work.
Assigning copyright means selling it, like selling a house or a car. Once you sell the copyright on a piece of your work it no longer belongs to you. It is customary in the film industry, for example, for a screenwriter to assign the rights of their film script to a film company, meaning the film company then owns it and can do what they like with it. However, this is not customary in the world of book publishing, so if anyone offers you a contract that asks you to assign the copyright to another party, you should seek legal advice before you do anything else.
Licensing means that the author keeps the copyright or ownership of the work but allows someone else to exercise those rights under agreement without infringing copyright. A book publishing contract, for example, is an agreement between the author and the publisher which licenses the publisher to publish the author’s book in a form specified in that agreement. The author might license the publisher to publish the book in hard copy only, and withhold the licence to publish it, say, as an audio book. The contract will also specify whether the book can be published in a particular country or part of the world.
It is important to realise that in each case the writer might choose to withhold other rights. The scriptwriter might keep the rights to the novelisation of his or her film. The novelist might keep the rights to serialise the novel in newspapers and magazines. Be sure to talk to someone with expertise in copyright and legal matters before you sign a contract. For more information, see our page on legal advice.
Copyright might be changing
The Australian Government is currently considering making a change to our copyright laws that will influence when and how much of a piece of writing can be used with or without needing permission. You can read more about the proposed changes on this website.
So keep an eye on the situation, as it may change over the next few months. In the meantime, a good place to go for more specific advice is the Arts Law Centre of Australia.
- Australian Copyright Council
- Arts Law Centre
- Australian Writers' Guild (film, television, theatre and radio scripts)
- Australian Society of Authors (literature)
Updated August 2016