Copyright 101 - What is Copyright?

Copyright is all pervasive. It protects a dizzying array of subject matter from written works such as instruction manuals and poems to pictorial works such as drawings and maps. It protects musical and audiovisual works including podcasts and YouTube videos and other subject matter such as television and radio broadcasts.

This article provides an introduction to the law of copyright by explaining a number of fundamental concepts in simple terms.

What is copyright for? Protecting creative effort

Copyright is a form of property (technically, ‘intellectual property’) that is created and regulated in Australia by the Copyright Act 1969 (Cth).

The basic purpose of copyright is to give to creators the exclusive right to enjoy the fruits of their endeavours – and in particular the fruits that arise from ‘economic’ uses of their creations. In addition, by protecting the rights of creators, the law of copyright provides a society-wide incentive to encourage the production of new works.

Having said this, the rights of creators are not absolute. The law of copyright also tries to balance the rights of copyright owners with other socially desirable activities, by providing certain people limited rights to use copyright protected works for activities such as study and research, criticism and review, parody and satire etc.

While copyright is mainly concerned with protecting the rights of creators or the originators of certain works, the originator will not always automatically own the works. Conversely, the Copyright Act provides certain rights to people who are the original creators or performers of works even where one might think they would not have any rights. These additional rights include moral rights and performers' rights.

Copyright is in fact a number of rights

Technically, copyright is not just a single right: it is a bundle of separate rights.

This concept can be illustrated by using the analogy of owning a house (referred to as ‘real’ property as opposed to ‘intellectual’ property). Owning a house and land gives you a number of rights, including: the right to exclude others from the property; the right to lease the property to tenants; the right to mortgage it to a bank in return for cash; and the right to sell it.

In a similar way, copyright gives an exclusive bundle of rights to the owner. While the rights vary depending upon what subject matter is being protected (see section 3 below), these can include:

  • the right to copy or reproduce the work or subject matter;
  • the right to publish the work;
  • the right to perform the work in public;
  • the right to communicate the work or subject matter to the public;
  • the right to make an adaptation of the work;
  • the right to rent articles such as cd-roms or compact disks which contain copyrighted material;
  • the right to prevent the importation of articles which infringe copyright in the work;
  • the right to assign or licence any of the above rights.

If someone other than the owner attempts to do any of the above (without the permission of the owner), this is likely to be an infringement of copyright unless a valid defence applies.

Copyright does not protect all creative endeavours

1. Copyright protects only the material expression of ideas

As a basic rule, copyright does not protect ideas, concepts or methods. While there are some limited exceptions to this rule, copyright protects the way that ideas or concepts are recorded or expressed in material form (whether written down or typed, recorded on tape or disk, painted or drawn etc).

Copyright lawyers often refer to this as the idea/expression divide, or the idea/expression dichotomy.

2. Copyright requires some originality or effort

Generally, in order for something to be protected by copyright, it needs to be produced using some form of skill or effort. For this reason, copyright does not usually protect the following:

  • Single words and short phrases such as names, brands, titles, slogans or tag lines as these are generally not regarded as being produced by enough special skill or labour;
  • Basic facts such as names and addresses, telephone numbers and email addresses (although they can be part of a compilation that is subject to copyright protection);
  • People’s likenesses as reproduced by artists or photographers (although the drawing or photograph itself will be subject to copyright).

3. Only certain types of subject matter are protected by copyright

Specifically, the Copyright Act protects four types of ‘works’:

  • literary works;
  • dramatic works;
  • artistic works; and
  • musical works.

Further, copyright also exists in relation to some ‘subject matter other than works’:

  • sound recordings;
  • cinematograph films;
  • television and sound broadcasts; and
  • published editions of works.

Internationally, the rights relating to this ‘other’ subject matter are often seen as being related to copyright without actually being copyright. In Australia, the Copyright Act definitely refers to these as copyright.

CopyrightDavid Kwei