What is copyright?

"The exclusive right given by law for a certain term of years to an author, composer, designer, etc. (or his assignee), to print, publish, and sell copies of his original work." - Oxford English Dictionary

Copyright is a legal property right. The owner of copyright in a material owns a bundle of rights associated with a work. That bundle includes the exclusive right to use the work by copying it, publishing it or transforming it into another format.

Modern copyright law allows creators to own their original works for a period of time so the creators can control the dissemination and use of their works. Once the copyright in a work has expired and the creator no long has control of dissemination and use, the work is said to enter the public domain.

For example, if you write a short story about your experience at UNSW, you own copyright in that story as soon as it is committed to paper or typed onto a screen. You are now the only person who can determine when and how it is published. Others will need to ask you for permission if they want to copy it, translate it, make it into a play or use it in any other way.

What kinds of works can be copyrighted?

There are two categories of works that can be copyrighted. The Copyright Act 1968 calls these two categories works and subject matter other than works.


Includes artistic works, literary works, dramatic works and musical works.

  • Artistic works - includes creative materials that are not primarily composed of words or musical notes, such as paintings, sculptures, photographs, patterns, maps, diagrams and technical drawings
  • Literary works - includes both fictional and non-fictional non-dramatic works, such as journal articles, books, poems, instructional manuals and computer programs
  • Dramatic works - includes the written forms of works for the stage or screen, such as plays, screenplays and choreography
  • Musical works - includes music in its written form such as musical scores, musical compositions and guitar tabs

Subject matter other than works

Includes four types of materials. The materials in this category are typically combinations or performances of the works listed above.

  • Cinematographic films - includes materials like films, videos, televisions programs, commercials and music videos
  • Sound recordings - includes music in its audio form, such as music recordings, recordings of spoken words, recordings of nature sounds, radio plays, sound effects and even traffic noise
  • Broadcasts - is a specific category that includes pre-recorded or live television or radio broadcasts
  • Published editions of works - includes certain aspects of a material that can be separately owned, such as specific layouts, design and typesetting of books and headline appearance in newspapers

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