Only one thing is impossible for God: to find any sense in any copyright law on the planet – Mark Twain 

Copyright is a complex area of law which protects the expression of ideas. It provides the creator with the exclusive right to exploit their works for a specified period including: 

  • Reproducing the work (e.g. scanning the work, printing or copying the work); 
  • Communicating the work to the public (e.g. creating pamphlets and handing them around); and 
  • Receiving remuneration for another using your work such as a performance, translation or other adaptation.  

The Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) (the Act) governs copyright in Australia and uses the term “works” to describe a range of creative, intellectual or artistic forms. The Act calls films, sound recordings and broadcasts “subject matter other than works”.

1. Why Do Copyright Laws Exist?

Working in a creative industry can be a tough gig, and it’s important you know how to protect your work from copycats. Consider the following analogy Associate Professor Patricia Loughlan sets out which involves a farmer protecting the fruits of his labour.

A farmer (author) works extremely hard to put food on the table. The farmer plants a crop (writes a piece of music) and wants to sell it in a year’s time (earn royalties). The farmer builds a fence (Australia’s copyright law), but this doesn’t stop some determined thieves from jumping the fence (copyright infringers) and stealing the crop (copying the music). Copyright laws exist to prevent thieves from commercially exploiting what they have not produced.

Interestingly copyright laws only protect original creative works. If two people coincidently but independently paint Bronte beach using the same shade of purple for the sky, and the same shade of green for the sea, one person can’t necessarily point at the other and say he or she copied. It is only where one person saw the other’s painting, then copied it (either unconsciously or consciously), that copyright law would protect the rights of the individual who had their work copied.

3. What is the Difference Between Idea and Expression?

Copyright only protects the expression of an idea – not the idea itself. For example, you have an idea to pen a book about a family of vampires who integrate with society. One is especially attractive with high cheekbones and who sparkles when exposed to the sun.

Your friend then hands you a copy of Twilight, and you are enraged – Edward Cullen? Bella? Sparkly vampires? Stephanie Meyer MUST be copying YOU. Copyright law does not, however, protect your idea until you reduce your idea to material form (i.e. writing the book, song lyric or painting a picture).

4. What Does Copyright Law Protect?

Artworks, sound recordings, music, architectural plans, books and photographs are pieces of creative work, and attract copyright protection so that the creator can exploit their work for financial gain.

Copyright law will not protect the following:

  • Facts: A fact is a piece of true information, not the result of any creative input.
  • Ideas: If copyright attached to ideas, people would be unable to create and sell any product or service. This is also impractical to enforce.
  • Concepts: Similar to an idea, a concept must be reduced to material form to receive copyright protection.

Key Takeaways

Copyright law protects original creative works, allowing the creator the right to commercially exploit his or her work. It exists to incentivise individuals to keep creating, but only if they reduce their ideas to material form (remembering, copyright law doesn’t protect ideas). If you have any questions or need assistance on how to protect your work, get in touch with our IP lawyers on 1300 544 755. 

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