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Copyright is the exclusive right to deal with original creative works (and certain other subject matter) in a particular way. A copyright owner generally has the exclusive right to use, reproduce, publish, disseminate, communicate or otherwise exploit those works.

If anyone uses or 'deals with' the works in this way without the permission of the copyright owner, they are said to have breached or infringed copyright.

An example

If you purchase a book from a bookstore you own that tangible item – the book itself. However, the book is merely a copy of the original literary work; the copyright in the book is owned by the creator, the author.

This means that although you may generally deal with that book however you wish, there are certain acts – such as copying the book – which are the exclusive right of the author; only the author may carry these out. This is the nature of copyright.

Copyright is one of a suite of legal rights that fall under the generic term 'intellectual property'.

What is intellectual property?

Intellectual property is a group of rights which are capable of legal protection. In the higher education context, intellectual property usually refers to copyright, patents or trademarks. Intellectual property broadly refers to the following rights:

  • copyright protected under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth);
  • patents registered or registrable under the Patents Act 1990 (Cth);
  • trademarks registered or registrable under the Trade Marks Act 1995 (Cth);
  • trademarks or names protected at common law or under the Trade Practices Act 1974 (Cth);
  • circuit layouts protected under the Circuit Layouts Act 1989 (Cth);
  • designs registered or registrable under the Designs Act 1906 (Cth);
  • plant varieties registered or registrable under the Plant Breeder Rights Act 1994 (Cth); and
  • confidential information, including secrets arising from an unpatented invention.

The word 'property' in the term can be a little misleading because we ordinarily associate property rights with tangible items that can be stolen, such as money, goods and valuables. Intellectual property is not ‘stolen’ as such. Instead, the intellectual property right is said to be ‘breached’ or ‘infringed’.

What information is protected by copyright?

Copyright protects original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works, as well as other subject matter such as sound recordings, films, and television and radio broadcasts. Unlike other intellectual property rights, such as patent or trademark rights, there is no registration scheme for copyright in Australia. Instead, copyright in an original work vests in a creator automatically upon the creation of that work.

Importantly, copyright protects the expression of ideas, rather than the ideas themselves. Assume two people are talking openly about ideas for a blockbuster film. The person who expresses those ideas in a concrete form to which copyright attaches (such as a screenplay) will have their original work protected by copyright. The other person, who expresses their ideas ephemerally in conversation, will have no such protection.

What law governs copyright in Australia?

In Australia, copyright is governed by the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). The Act sets out:

  • the works (and other subject matter) in which copyright subsists;
  • the acts that constitute infringement;
  • the acts that expressly do not constitute copyright infringement, including 'fair dealing';
  • copyright offences and remedies;
  • broad exceptions to copyright infringement by educational and other institutions; and
  • certain other matters.

How long does copyright last?

The general rule is that copyright in a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator. However, there are exceptions, depending on a number of factors, including the nature of the work, the time it was made and whether it has been published.

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