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What is copyright and how does it work?

Justin Fung, Avant Law - Partner, Head of Commercial & Corporate | General Manager

Copyright is a form of intellectual property which recognises that creative works and ideas can be reduced to material form and recognised by the law as a property asset. It's a bundle of rights set up under statute that allows creators to prevent others copying, publishing, performing or adapting their creative works and other subject matter they have created, without their consent.   

'Works' are literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works.

'Other subject matter' is sound recordings, films, television and sound broadcasts and  published editions.

Copyright doesn't protect ideas, only the expression of those ideas in their material form. An example of this principle is that a recipe for a dish that is written down or recorded will be protected by copyright but copyright does not protect the ingredients or cooking methods themselves.  

Copyright exists separately from the work itself, so a simple sale of the work include does not include the copyright in the work. An example here is that just because you have purchased a painting from an artist, you cannot make prints from it without the artist's permission.

Copyright does not need to be registered. In Australia, copyright does not need to be registered. Unlike some other jurisdictions (for example the US), copyright protection is automatic here. However, it is usually a good idea to display the copyright symbol © prominently together with the name of the copyright owner and the relevant date the work was created or published to make sure others are aware that copyright is being claimed in the work.

Copyright lasts for a long time. In general, copyright continues for 70 years from the date of death of the creator. After the creator’s death the copyright forms part of the deceased estate and transfers to the creator's heirs under the laws of succession.

Copyright includes moral rights. Creators have special moral rights in addition to their copyright which protect their right to attribution and the integrity of their works.

Copyright can be licenced and assigned. The former is like a standing permission and the latter is like a transfer. Both of them can be limited in various ways, for example as to scope of use and geography. A licence of course can be limited in time as well.

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About the author

Justin Fung

Justin Fung is a lawyer and the Head of Commercial and Corporate in our Avant Law team. Justin has over 15 years’ experience advising in commercial, corporate, risk, compliance, governance, regulatory enforcement and dispute resolution and advises clients in the private and public sectors. He was previously General Counsel of a national allied health group of companies and held Group and Divisional Head of Legal roles in a major ASX-listed health company, whose operations covered medical and dental centres, allied health, pathology, diagnostic imaging, assisted reproductive technologies, day surgeries and hospitals. Prior to these in-house legal roles, Justin was an Executive Counsel with the global law firm Herbert Smith Freehills where he practiced for over 10 years.


The information in this article does not constitute legal advice or other professional advice and should not be relied upon as such. It is intended only to provide a summary and general overview on matters of interest and it is not intended to be comprehensive. You should seek legal or other professional advice before acting or relying on any of this content. The information in this article is current to 15 July 2022.  Legal services are provided by Avant Law.  Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation. Legal practitioners employed by Avant Law Pty Limited are members of the scheme. © Avant Mutual Group Limited 2024

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