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Copyright is a legal right that gives copyright owners the right to control certain activities with their works. These activities include copying and re-use, such as publication, performance, adaptation and communicating the work to the public (for example, by making it available online).

If you are not the owner of the copyright, you risk infringing copyright if you perform one of these exclusive acts without obtaining the permission of the copyright owner. You must consider copyright when you obtain or create copies of items from the State Library's collection to re-use them in some public way. 

Duration of copyright

  • Published materials - generally 70 years from the death of the creator, or (for sound recordings and films) from the date of publication.
  • Unpublished materials - such as the State Library's archival or manuscript collections, the duration may be even longer than 70 years. As of 1 January 2019 copyright terms apply to unpublished works. For detailed information about these changes see the Department of Communications and the Arts​​​​​​' copyright duration fact sheets.
  • End of copyright - a work is referred to as 'out of copyright' or 'in the public domain'.

Why we have copyright

There are a number of explanations for why we have a copyright system, including that it:

  • provides an important incentive for the creation and distribution of intellectual and creative works
  • rewards creators for their efforts.

Works covered by Copyright

In Australia, copyright applies to both published and unpublished works, and protection is automatic as long as certain basic requirements are met.

Copyright applies to many different types of works in library collections, including:

Architectural plans Design drawings and plans Plays
Artworks Diaries and letters Published editions
Books, newspapers and periodicals Films Screenplays and scripts
Broadcasts (both sound and television) Manuscripts Software
Choreography Maps Song lyrics
Compilations and databases Musical scores Sound recordings
Computer games Photographs Websites

How to apply copyright to works

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:

© Author Name 2019

Copyright is not dependent on aesthetic or literary merit and protects materials that are utilitarian, short or mundane.

Copyright law

Australian copyright law is set out in the Copyright Act 1968 (Cwlth) including all amendments. Australian copyright law applies to any copying or re-use performed in Australia, even if the owner of the copyright in the work you are copying is a citizen of another country.

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 State Library's websites or catalogue, you must follow the copyright law of the country in which you reside.

Copyright owner

The default rule in the Copyright Act 1968 (Cwlth) is that copyright in a work is owned by its creator or maker–however, this basic position can be changed in various ways.

Transfer of copyright

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 the 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 be bequeathed by will.

If no specific provision is made in a will for copyright it forms part of the residuary estate. The relevant government owns the copyright in works made by, or under the direction or control of, an Australian federal or state government agency.

Copyright, ownership and the State Library

Because copyright ownership is distinct from physical ownership, the State Library does not own the copyright in most of the material in its collections. Even though the State Library may own a manuscript or a drawing, for example, it does not necessarily have the right to provide you with a copy or authorise its re-use.

In some cases, the copyright owner will assign copyright to the State Library at the time of donation or a specified later date. In other cases, the copyright owner will grant an open licence to their work, such as a Creative Commons - About the Licences which specifies how the work may be used without seeking the owner's permission.

Multiple copyright owners

It is possible for more than one copyright to exist in a single item. For example in a music CD, the composer may own the 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.

Contacting a copyright owner

The State Library can sometimes provide information that may help you find the copyright owner to arrange permissions to copy and use the material.