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What is copyright?

Economic rights for copyright owners

Copyright provides incentives for creators such as authors, artists, composers and photographers to create copyright material and for publishers, record companies, film makers, broadcasters and others to invest resources in the creation of that material.

Australia’s copyright law is contained in the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) and the regulations made under it.

Under copyright law, copyright owners have a number of exclusive economic rights (ie copyrights) in relation to how their copyright material is used. People wanting to use copyright material in any of the ways within the exclusive control of the copyright owner must obtain the copyright owner’s permission to do so, unless an exception applies.

Copyright law seeks to balance the private interests of copyright owners to exclusively control their copyrights with the wider public interest for the advancement of education, research and culture. One way in which it seeks to do this is through a number of restrictions on the exercise of these exclusive rights in certain circumstances (eg exceptions that permit certain uses in particular situations).

What does copyright protect?
  • Copyright law protects the material form in which an idea is expressed (eg in writing or some other tangible form of storage; film and audio recordings), it does not protect the idea itself. There is no “material form” requirement for copyright material that is a sound or television broadcast.
Copyright protection is automatic
  • Copyright protection is automatic from the time the copyright material is first written down or recorded in some way (eg once a scholarly article is written, it is protected). Sound and television broadcasts do not need to be recorded to be protected.


    There is no need to publish works to obtain copyright protection and there is no registration system in Australia. In most countries, a copyright notice (generally, the symbol © followed by the copyright owner’s name and the year of first publication) is not needed on copyright material to ensure protection. It does, however, notify people that someone is claiming copyright.


This information is provided as general information only. It provides a basic introduction to copyright and is not intended to be comprehensive.

Reviewed December 2017

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