About copyright

About copyright

You are welcome to copy material or order copies from the Library’s collections provided you meet the requirements of the Australian Copyright Act and any special requirements that may apply to material that is original, unpublished or culturally sensitive.

Information on copyright provided by the Library does not constitute legal advice. If in doubt, seek legal advice before copying a work.

Copyright is a legal right that gives copyright owners the right to control certain activities with their works. These activities include copying and, depending on the type of work, publication, performance, adaptation and communicating the work to the public (for example, by making it available online). If you are not the owner of copyright, you risk infringing copyright if you perform one of these exclusive acts without obtaining the permission of the copyright owner. Copyright must therefore be considered when you obtain or create copies of items from the Library’s collection.
The basic rule of duration of copyright is generally 70 years from the death of the creator for literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works, or (for sound recordings and films and works with no known creator) from the date after the work was made public.

However, it is best to consult a more detailed guide, like the Australian Copyright Council Duration of Copyright information sheet.

The NSLA position statement on copyright exceptions and limitations includes information on Commonwealth copyright, duration of copyright, fair dealing and orphan works.

There are a number of explanations for why we have a copyright system, including that it: (1) provides an important incentive for the creation and distribution of intellectual and creative works; and (2) rewards authors for the fruits of their labours.

Copyright applies to many different types of works, including:

  • Architectural plans

  • Art works

  • Books, newspapers and periodicals

  • Broadcasts (both sound and television)

  • Choreographic shows

  • Compilations and databases

  • Computer games

  • Design drawings and plans

  • Diaries and letters

  • Films

  • Manuscripts

  • Maps

  • Musical scores

  • Photographs

  • Plays

  • Published editions

  • Screenplays and scripts

  • Software

  • Song lyrics

  • Sound recordings

  • Websites

In Australia, copyright applies to both published and unpublished works, and protection is automatic as long as certain basic requirements are met. That is, there is no copyright registration process and an individual does not need to claim copyright by including the copyright symbol and their name on a work (such as © Author Name 2010). Copyright is not dependent on aesthetic or literary merit and can protect materials that are utilitarian, short and/or mundane.

In Australia, copyright law, including all amendments, is set out in the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth).

Australian copyright law applies to any copying done in Australia, even if the owner of copyright in the work you are copying is a citizen of another country. This is because there are reciprocal arrangements between countries which mean that copyright in foreign works is also recognised in Australia (and vice versa).

If you are not located in Australia and you are copying digitised content from the Library’s web site, you must follow the copyright law of the country in which you reside.

The default rule in the Copyright Act is that copyright in a work is owned by its creator or maker. However, this basic position can be changed in various ways. Copyright owners can transfer their copyright, for example where an author assigns copyright to a publisher. If a creator made the work as part of their job, the employer will generally own copyright. Similarly, for some commissioned items, the commissioner is deemed to be the copyright owner. If a copyright owner dies, their copyright forms part of their estate and can therefore be bequeathed by will. More information on who can own copyright [PDF 322KB] is available from the Australian Copyright Council.

The relevant government owns copyright in works made by, or under the direction or control of, an Australian federal or state government agency.

Significantly, the Library does not own copyright in most of the material in its collections. Copyright ownership is distinct from physical ownership. For example, even though the Library may own a painting or manuscript, the Library does not necessarily have the right to provide you with a copy of it. In some cases we can, however, provide information that may help you contact a copyright owner to arrange permissions to copy and use material.

It is possible for more than one copyright to exist in a single item. For example in a music CD, the composer may own copyright in the music, the lyricist in the words, a photographer in a photo used on the cover, and a production company in the way the music was recorded. It is also possible to have more than one owner of a single copyright, for instance when two or more individuals act as co-authors of a book.

What are moral rights?

Australian copyright law sets out a separate and additional set of rights called moral rights [PDF 322KB]. Moral rights give certain creators and performers the right:

  • to have their authorship or performership attributed to them;
  • not to have their work falsely attributed to someone else; and
  • not to have their work treated in a derogatory way.

Moral rights should always be considered if you are re-using and altering works (for example, through editing, cropping or colourising) and you should ensure that attributions are clear and reasonably prominent.

Moral rights generally last until the copyright in the work expires. Moral rights cannot be transferred or waived, although creators can provide written consents to acts that would otherwise infringe their moral rights. Furthermore, there are defences to moral rights infringement, for instance, where the infringing act is reasonable in all the circumstances.