What rights do copyright owners have?

So far, we’ve learnt that copyright protection will attach to your original expression automatically. But what does it mean to have copyright protection? 

Copyright law grants to a copyright owner certain exclusive rights in their work.


“Exclusive rights” in the context of copyright means that only the copyright owner or someone with the copyright owner’s permission can exercise those rights (unless the person acting is protected by a legal defence or exception – more on these soon).

The rights are:

For artistic works

  • the right to reproduce (i.e. copy) the work
  • the right to publish the work
  • the right to make the work available online (e.g. to post to a blog)

For literary, dramatic and musical works

  • the right to reproduce (i.e. copy) the work
  • the right to publish the work
  • the right to make the work available online (e.g. to post to a blog)
  • the right to perform the work in public
  • the right to adapt the work (e.g. to produce a screenplay for a film from a book, or to remix a song)

For sound recordings and cinematograph films

  • the right to make a copy of the sound recording or film
  • the right to cause the sound recording or film to be heard or seen in public
  • the right to make the recording or film available online

For published editions –

  • the right is to make an exact copy of the published edition

An understanding of the exclusive rights of copyright owners goes hand-in-hand with an understanding of what it means to infringe those rights. For this reason, this week I am bringing you two posts rather than the usual one. Tomorrow I will publish a post on: ‘What is copyright infringement?’ Stay tuned!

© Basics: Duration

Sometimes people ask me how long copyright protection lasts. The answer is a very long time. Some say too long.

In Australia, copyright lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years for literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works. If a work is anonymous (i.e. we don’t know who the creator is) then copyright protection lasts for 70 years after the work is first made available to the public.

For sound recordings and cinematograph films, copyright protection lasts for 70 years after the recording or film is first made available to the public. For published editions, copyright lasts for 25 years after the edition is first published.

I told you it was a long time! (In fact, did you know that your copyright interest is something that you can pass down to your children or other beneficiaries in your will?)

Photo by James Kendall, licensed under Creative Commons BY-ND 2.0

Photo by James Kendall, licensed under Creative Commons BY-ND 2.0

That’s why copyright notices like “© Kylie Pappalardo 2014″ can be helpful. Once you know who created the work and when it was made, you can figure out when the copyright term will end.

So what happens when the copyright term does end? The work falls into what we call “the public domain“, which means that anyone can use the work however they like for free.

Now most public domain works are old, of course, but that doesn’t mean they’re not fun or useful. For example, the original illustrations in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland are in the public domain (the illustrator, John Tenniel, died in 1914). There are many examples of people using these images in party themes, invitations and decorations (and selling their products on Etsy). Another interesting example is Project Gutenberg, which provides free e-book downloads of public domain books.


© Basics: Different copyright subject matter

Copyright protects different kinds of subject matter.  

Under the category of “works” copyright protects literary works, artistic works, musical works and dramatic works.

  • literary work is any written work substantial enough to attract copyright protection, regardless of literary merit. This category includes books, blog posts, letters and essays. (Fun fact: computer programs are also classified as literary works).
  • Artistic works include paintings, photographs, drawings, sculptures and engravings (regardless of artistic quality).
  • musical work is the musical notation of a song or piece of music. It does not include the song lyrics – those are a literary work.
  • dramatic work includes a scenario or script for a film, a choreographic show and mime shows.

Subject matterUnder the category of “subject matter other than works” copyright protects sound recordings, cinematograph films, television and radio broadcasts and published editions. Don’t worry about broadcasts for now – those aren’t relevant to you.

  • The legal definition of a sound recording is “the aggregate of the sounds embodied on a record”. Think: mp3 tracks or tracks on a CD, recorded podcasts.
  • cinematographic film is the aggregate of the visual images shown as a moving picture. Think: movies (both full length and shorts), clips uploaded to YouTube, recorded video logs (vlogs).
  • Published edition refers to the way that a literary work is formatted and laid out (including the design elements) for publication or printing. Basically, the look and feel of the final published work.

Slightly different rules apply to each of these categories. I will highlight these differences in my posts as I go along.

Ummmm, how is all this legal mumbo jumbo relevant to me, as a blogger??

The reason why it’s useful to know the different types of copyright subject matter is that a creative item can have several different layers of copyright protection, and sometimes these layers can be owned and controlled by different people. So for example:

book will have copyright as a literary work (with the owner, at first instance, being the author) and there will also be copyright in the published edition of the book (generally owned by the publisher). If the book is illustrated, then the illustrations will be protected as artistic works (with the owner, at first instance, being the illustrator).

Similarly, a song will have protection as a musical work and the lyrics will be protected as a literary work. Once recorded, it will also have protection as a sound recording.

A humble blog post may have many layers of copyright protection – in the words written (as a literary work), the pictures and photographs shared (as artistic works) and any podcasts or video casts shared (as sound recordings or cinematographic films).

When you are thinking about using someone else’s creative item, you will need to think about the different layers of copyright that might apply to it and that you may need to seek permission from several different copyright owners.

While it helps to remember that different layers of copyright can be owned by different people, often they are not, either because the same person created the different layers (e.g. the musician who writes their own music and their own lyrics) or because copyright ownership is combined in one entity by contract. For example, recording studios will often require musicians to transfer copyright ownership in the musical and literary works to the recording studio, which already owns copyright in the sound recording. Then the recording studio owns the entire copyright in the song. The same goes for publishers and authors with respect to books.

This can be a lot to take in. But don’t stress! I’ve got posts on copyright ownership (and how it can be altered by contract) and how to ask permission from a copyright owner coming up soon. :)

Photo credits: Clockwise from top left: Music by photosteve101, www.planetofsuccess.com/blog/, licensed under Creative Commons BY 2.0, Paintbrushes by John Morgan, licensed under Creative Commons BY 2.0, Books by Chris, licensed under Creative Commons BY 2.0, “Maskerade-0″ by Florian Knorn, licensed under Creative Commons BY NC SA 2.0