Copyright in Australia

Copyright in Australia

In this special additional chapter of The News Manual Online, we look at copyright in Australia. It is based on the general principles of copyright described in Chapter 63: Introduction to the law but is more specific about the application of copyright laws in Australia.


What is copyright?

Australia, in line with many countries, has special copyright laws to protect the words written by one person from being used by another person without consent. This protection is called copyright because it gives the person who wrote the words the exclusive right to copy them or say who else may use them.

Copyright can also apply to other things which are created, such as music, sound recordings, photographs, films, paintings or other works of art, but for the purposes of this handout, we will talk mainly about words.

The words in this chapter are protected by copyright. As one of the authors, I have the right to copy the words in other forums or in other publications (such as a hard copy book), but anyone else who wants to reproduce my work will have to ask me for permission and perhaps pay a fee (called royalties). That permission or fee only entitles the person to use it under certain circumstances which have to be specified, such as when including some of this material in their own book.

Similarly the illustrations in The News Manual are protected by copyright: only the artist has the right to copy the pictures on other websites or in other publications.

^^back to the top

Establishing copyright

Authors do not have to do anything to register their copyright. The law says the copyright exists from the moment the words are written. However, copyright does not cover ideas until they have been put in some permanent form as the result of some effort, skill or experience. For example, much of the advice we give in The News Manual comes from ideas which are commonly talked about by journalists throughout the world. We do not have the copyright on those ideas. But we do have copyright on the way they are expressed there. If someone else writes those ideas down in a different way, that is legitimate; if they copy any of our sentences word-for-word - or very nearly word-for-word - they will infringe our copyright and we can sue them for it.

Some journalists believe that they can copy the words published by other journalists without permission. This is not so. Although copyright does not cover news itself, it usually covers the way the news is written in newspapers or broadcast on another radio station. This means that a newspaper can write about a car crash, for example, then you can write about the same car crash in your own way. But if you copy the newspaper's words sentence-by-sentence, you will infringe their copyright.

The courts will decide whether you have copied their work or just written a very similar story. The law demands that one newspaper, radio or television station cannot copy another writer's or producer's work without permission unless they make substantial changes. Simply rearranging the paragraphs is not enough to avoid copyright.

Copyright protects not only material produced in Australia, but also material produced by anyone in a country which has signed the Berne Copyright Convention.

Courts have decided that copyright can even include advertisements, racing form guides and sporting fixture lists. However, it only protects these things in their original form. You do not have to ask for copyright if you substantially change the way the information is presented.

Some journalists also believe that you can avoid copyright laws by acknowledging where you got the original words from. This is usually not enough. Most laws demand that you must first ask permission from the original writer before you copy their work.

^^back to the top

Duration of copyright

In Australia, copyright on a work continues from the moment it is produced until 70 years after the death of the author. If the author has died less than 70 years ago, you must ask their literary heirs for permission. After 70 years, the copyright ceases to exist and you are free to copy the words.

Copyright may also be bought and sold during those 70 years. For example, Michael Jackson bought the copyright to the early songs of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Most of that collection was then sold to Sony Corporation. Now any time those songs are played on a radio station, the royalties are paid to Sony.

Copyright agreements

There are, however, situations when journalists do not have to ask permission to reproduce copyright material. One of these occasions is if your organisation has already negotiated a licence agreement to use any of the copyright holder's material. These are sometimes called 'blanket agreements'. In Australia, for example, a newspaper might sign a blanket agreement with Australian Associated Press (AAP) to use any of its stories transmitted to thenm electronically. Many broadcasters will have also signed blanket agreements with the Australian Performing Rights Association (APRA) enabling them to play music created by its members in exchange for an annual fee.

Fair dealing

Another occasion when journalists can use someone else's material without asking permission is through a process called 'fair dealing'. Under fair dealing, you can refer to someone else's work (such as another newspaper's story) without copying it. You might, for example, write a story reporting that the other newspaper claims that the Minister for Housing is about to be dismissed. You cannot use the other newspaper's own words, but you can report what they have said.


Reviews are another special case. The law usually allows a reviewer to quote passages of the work under review - such as a book - as long as they clearly acknowledge the title of the work, the name of the author and the publisher.

^^back to the top

Other works

However, these exemptions do not cover other documents copied for news stories or feature articles. It especially does not cover documents which have been leaked to the media without the owner's permission. Because the owner did not know that they were being leaked, they could not give permission. If you quote extensively from a leaked document, you could be infringing the owner's copyright, and could be sued.

Most documents which are given to reporters by their rightful owners can be safely copied. These usually consist of press releases, official reports and transcripts of proceedings. But you should ask for legal advice before reprinting any document you have some across by any other means.

As a journalist, your work will be protected by copyright law. However, you may not own the copyright personally. If you are paid to produce an program or an article by someone else, the person who paid you owns the copyright. Your employer will own the copyright of any work you produce in their time if you have been paid.

Even if you have not been paid, the publisher or broadcaster may own the copyright on the publication or broadcast of your words. You may own copyright on the words themselves; the station may own copyright of the actual broadcast.

The National Library of Australia has some very straightforward explanations of copyright law on their website, including a chart showing useful exceptions for the media.

^^back to the top

Copyright in Australia
  1. What is copyright?
  2. Establishing copyright
  3. Duration of copyright
  4. Copyright agreements
  5. Fair dealing
  6. Reviews
  7. Other works
Media law & ethics in Australia
  1. Media law & ethics in Australia - Introduction
  2. Defamation in Australia
  3. Contempt & court reporting in Australia
  4. Copyright in Australia
  5. Vilification in Australia
  6. National security and anti-terrorism in Australia

Looking for something?

A quick way to find what you're looking for on media law & ethics in Australia is through the OZ INDEX. Click here:

Index to Media Law in Australia

Home | About | The Manuals | Exercises | Resources | Links | Contact Us | What's New

Copyright David Ingram and the Peter Henshall Estate 2019. Website by Diopdesign