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Digital Citizenship: Copyright laws

What is copyright?

A simple definition of copyright is that it is a bunch of rights in certain creative works (literary works, artistic works, musical works, computer programs, sound recordings, films and broadcasts) which can be used to stop others from copying the creative works without permission.

At its most basic, copyright is simply the exclusive right to copy.

The rights are granted exclusively to the copyright owner to reproduce (copy, scan, print) and communicate (email, put on Internet) the material, and for some material, the right to perform or show the work to the public. Copyright owners can prevent others from reproducing or communicating their work without their permission. Only the copyright owner can licence or sell these rights to someone else.

(Definition from Smartcopying, The Official Guide to Copyright Issues for Australian Schools and TAFE)

Why is copyright important?

Copyright is important because it gives creators control over their creative works. This means they can decide who uses their work, how it can be used and if they will charge a fee to other people who want to use it. This gives creators the ability to earn a living from their works and/or to control how their works are used or disseminated.

(Definition from Smartcopying, The Official Guide to Copyright Issues for Australian Schools and TAFE)

What is the public domain?

Once the period of copyright protection expires, the work is in the ‘public domain’. This means that anyone can copy the work without having first to obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Some people mistakenly believe that once a work is published or available for free from the Internet, it is in the ‘public domain’. This is not true. Publicly available Internet material, such as an online newspaper articles or images on Google or Flickr, are all protected by copyright.

Public domain works are works where the period of copyright protection has expired.

(Definition from Smartcopying, The Official Guide to Copyright Issues for Australian Schools and TAFE)

When does copyright apply?

In Australia, copyright protection is automatic. This means that a work does not need to be registered or have a copyright notice on it to be protected by copyright. A work will be protected as soon as it is put into material form, such as being written down or recorded in some way (filmed or recorded on an audio tape).

(Definition from Smartcopying, The Official Guide to Copyright Issues for Australian Schools and TAFE)

When can you use other people's work?

If you want to use someone else’s work, you can generally only use it if:

  1. Your use is permitted under an exception contained in the Australian Copyright Act (‘Copyright Act’). 

    There are a list of exceptions called ‘fair dealing’ in the Copyright Act that allow students to copy and use other people’s works for the purpose of ‘research and study’, ‘criticism and review’, ‘satire and parody’ and ‘reporting the news’.  See section onFair Dealingbelow.
  2. The copyright owner has said that it can be used for free or has licensed the material under a Creative Commons licence. See the section onCreative Commons.
  3. You ask the copyright owner for permission and they give it. This is called permission or a licence. 

(Definition from Smartcopying, The Official Guide to Copyright Issues for Australian Schools and TAFE)

Fair dealing

Students can copy and communicate limited amounts of works under “fair dealing” without seeking the permission of the copyright owner. To rely on fair dealing, the use of the material must be fair and for the purpose of:

  • research or study
  • criticism or review
  • parody or satire
  • reporting the news

Most of the copying students will do will fall under fair dealing for research and study. In some cases, a student will be copying material under both fair dealing for research and study and another fair dealing purpose such parody and satire or criticism and review.

Overall, deciding whether a student’s use is ‘fair’ will be determined largely by how much of the work has been copied. This can be tricky as the Copyright Act provides little guidance on what constitutes a ‘fair’ amount.

How much is fair?

As a general rule, students should only copy what is necessary for the fair dealing purpose to ensure that their use is ‘fair’. In most cases, this will only be an extract of the work and not the whole work. For example, in preparing an essay, a student is likely to copy several pages from a book or an article from a journal. This is permitted provided the extracts copied are necessary for the student’s research or study. Further, if the student is making a parody of a song or film, it is unlikely that the student will need to copy the whole work for the fair dealing purpose. In such a case, copying an extract of the song or film as necessary will be ‘fair’.

In limited circumstances, a student may be permitted to copy a whole work provided the whole work is necessary for the fair dealing purpose. For example, a student may need to copy an entire short poem when preparing a critique on the poem.

Overall, when relying on fair dealing, students must:

  • Use extracts and not whole works. In rare cases, a whole work can be copied provided it is necessary for the fair dealing purpose.
  • Always attribute the author and publisher where the source is known. 

(Definition from Smartcopying, The Official Guide to Copyright Issues for Australian Schools and TAFE)

Copyright and plagiarism

The relationship between copyright and plagiarism can be tricky to understand. Plagiarism is a type of misconduct that, in some cases, may also give rise to copyright infringement.

Plagiarism occurs where a student uses someone else’s ideas or words in their work and pretends they are their own. If the student has used a lot of someone else’s words without that person’s permission, copyright infringement may also occur.

Creative Commons for teachers and students

Creative Commons (CC) is an internationally active non-profit organisation that provides
free licences for creators to use when making their work available to the public. These
licences help the creator to give permission for others to use the work in advance under
certain conditions.
Every time a work is created, such as when a journal article is written or a photograph
taken, that work is automatically protected by copyright. Copyright protection prevents
others from using the work in certain ways, such as copying the work or putting the work
CC licences allow the creator of the work to select how they want others to use the work.
When a creator releases their work under a CC licence, members of the public know what
they can and can’t do with the work. This means that they only need to seek the
creator’s permission when they want to use the work in a way not permitted by the
The great thing is that all CC licences allow works to be used for educational purposes.
As a result, teachers and students can freely copy, share and sometimes modify and
remix a CC work without having seeking the permission of the creator.
(Definition from
Smartcopying, The Official Guide to Copyright Issues for Australian Schools and TAFE)

Smartcopying tips

1. Link to material

Linking is not a copyright activity. This is because you are not actually ‘copying’ or ‘communicating’ any material, you are just providing a path to its location on another website. Providing links to material on external websites will not infringe copyright and you do not need to seek permission from the website owner to include a link to their website.

2. Use embedded links

Embedding is another type of linking, except you don’t have to leave your website (e.g. blog or wiki) or intranet to access the content. It is commonly used for displaying online films, e.g. YouTube films, on websites.

Embedding involves copying the HTML code of the film, which is often displayed in a box near the film, and pasting it onto your website. The result of this is, rather than displaying the link, a small screen of the film will be shown on your website.

The primary advantage to embedding material is that you do not need to copy the material in order to make it available on your website.  Some websites, such as YouTube, provide the link for embedding films.  This makes embedding an easy and practical alternative to copying.

3. Create your own material

If you are using material that is your own original work and does not contain any material created by another person, you do not need to rely on the fair dealing exceptions as you are the copyright owner.

It is important that you label your original work with your name and the year it was created. This is so others know that the work is your original work and that you own copyright in that work.

Definition from Smartcopying, The Official Guide to Copyright Issues for Australian Schools and TAFE)

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contact Tania Sheko 

What does copyright protect?

Copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, styles or techniques. For example, copyright will not protect an idea for a film or book, but it will protect a script for the film or even a storyboard for the film. Basically, copyright only protects creativity that is in a tangible medium.

The types of works copyright protects include:

Artistic Works - paintings, photographs, maps, graphics, cartoons, charts, diagrams and illustrations

Literary Works - novels, textbooks, poems, song lyrics, newspaper articles, computer software, computer games

Musical Works - melodies, song music, advertising jingles, film scores

Dramatic works - plays, screenplays and choreography

Films and Moving Images - Feature films, short films, documentaries, television programs, interactive games, television advertisements, music videos and vodcasts

Sound Recordings - MP3 files, CDs, DVDs, vinyl and tape recordings, podcasts.

Broadcasts - Pay and Free to air television and radio

(Definition from Smartcopying, The Official Guide to Copyright Issues for Australian Schools and TAFE)

How long does copyright last?

The period of protection will differ depending on the type of creative work.

  1. Artistic, literary, musical and dramatic works are protected from the time the work is created until 70 years after the creator has died.
  2. Films, sound recordings and broadcasts are protected for 70 years from the end of the year in which the work was released.

(Definition from Smartcopying, The Official Guide to Copyright Issues for Australian Schools and TAFE)