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What is copyright?

Copyright is a bundle of rights exclusive to the creators of works and includes the right to copy, communicate, publish, perform publicly, and adapt. Copyright legislation protects a range of material:

  • literary works (e.g. journal articles, books, etc.)
  • artistic works (e.g. photographs, paintings, cartoons, maps, etc.)
  • dramatic works (e.g. plays, etc.)
  • musical works (e.g. songs, musical scores, etc.)
  • sound recordings
  • films
  • broadcasts
  • published editions

Even when multiple works are combined in a larger work, each element still retains its own protections: a movie may include music, a script and filmed footage; a journal article or book may include written text and a graph or diagram; a song recording may include music composition, written lyrics and the sonic recording of the song – each of these individual layers still are protected by copyright. Copyright does not protect ideas – it protects the expression of the idea in a material form.


Under Australian legislation (the Copyright Act 1968), creators of copyright material have ‘moral rights’:

  • the right of attribution (to be attributed as the creator of the work;
  • the right not to be falsely attributed (to prevent the work from being falsely attributed to someone else); and
  • the right of integrity (the work should not be subjected to derogatory treatment and used in a way that is prejudicial to the creator’s honour or reputation).

Copyright generally lasts 70 years from the death of the creator, or from the date of first publication. After this period, the work is in the public domain.

Copyright can be licensed or assigned. A licence of copyright means you permit others to exercise your rights in particular ways, and you retain your status as the copyright holder. Licences may be exclusive or non-exclusive.

  • An exclusive licence is where the licensee is the only one who can exercise the rights to the extent specified in the contract or licence agreement. No one else can exercise those rights.
  • A non-exclusive licence is where the licensee can exercise the rights as specified in the contract or licence agreement, but you can also grant others similar rights through a contract or licence agreement.

Assigning copyright means you transfer the copyright from yourself to another party, meaning you are no longer the copyright holder. A common example is where researchers assign their copyright in a research paper to a commercial publisher in a journal publishing agreement. You should consider carefully if you want to assign your copyright, as you may find yourself in a position in future where you need to seek permission from the copyright holder to use your own work.

Copyright infringement

You may only copy, communicate, publish, perform, or adapt copyright material if permitted by an exception in the Copyright Act, or if you have the permission of the copyright holder. Copyright infringement occurs when you a ‘substantial part’ of copyright material without permission of the copyright holder, or under an exception in the Copyright Act.

A ‘substantial part’ is an important, distinctive or essential part of copyright material. Generally, if the portion you wish to use is key, distinct, important or essential to the work, it is likely to be considered a substantial portion.

It is not an infringement of copyright if:

  • The use fits one of the exceptions in the Copyright Act
  • You obtain permission in writing from the copyright holder
  • Use is permitted under the terms of the University’s Statutory Licence agreements
  • The material is an older work no longer protected by copyright (‘public domain’)
  • Copyright is owned by Curtin University
  • The material has been licensed for use by the University
  • The material is covered by an open licence, such as Creative Commons, that permits re-use

Protecting your copyright

Copyright protection applies automatically. Copyright holders do not need to register their work and copyright material does not need to have the © copyright symbol attached for it to be protected. However, it is best practice to indicate your copyright ownership on any work you create. 

The wording should include the copyright symbol, your name, the year the work was created or published, your contact details, and any conditions of use. For example:

© Copyright 2018 M. Smith m.smith@curtin.edu.au. All rights reserved.

When specifying conditions of use, consider what kinds of uses you would like to permit or prohibit.

You may want to consider attaching a Creative Commons licence as an alternative. Creative Commons is a standardised set of six licences for applying conditions as ‘some rights reserved’ (you permit some uses under copyright such as copying and sharing, and can prohibit other uses such as adaptations or commercial uses).

Some examples of conditions of use are listed below:

  • No part of this [work] may be reproduced, in whole or in part, without the written permission of the copyright holder.
  • Permission is granted to use this [work] for personal use and for educational purposes.
  • This [work] may be used as permitted by the Copyright Act 1968, provided appropriate acknowledgement of the source is provided.

For creative works, the Arts Law Centre of Australia is a useful resource for protecting your works and navigating the complexities of copyright, including information on how to protect your work on the Internet.

For example:

  • Consider using watermarking or digital fingerprinting to assert your copyright (e.g. applying © Your Name, Date to a photograph);
  • Only share low resolution, or low quality, versions of your works (e.g. images at 72 dpi, music/sound at a compression rate of fewer than 49 kilobits per second, video with a compression rate of 151 kilobits per second);
  • Attach copyright information to the file metadata;
  • Attach copyright information to descriptions of the file, including your contact details so people know who to contact for further permissions.