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Imagine your manager has set you the arduous task of optimising and rewriting some software code. You do some research, find some pre-written code, but you are worried about whether you are infringing someone else’s hard work. After some further research, you become baffled by the legalities of intellectual property. You may, however, be able to use the code with a copyleft licence. This article will explain what a copyleft is and the effect of using copyleft licences.


To understand what a copyleft licence is, you will need to understand how copyleft is different to copyright. In Australia, like most jurisdictions, copyright is an automatic protection of an author’s original expression (i.e. there is no registration process).

Copyright attaches to all forms of work that is an original expression and meets the following requirements:

  1. A literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work that is original;
  2. An Australian resident or citizen created the work; and
  3. The original work was made or first published in Australia.

Is it an Offence to Infringe an Author’s Copyright?

Only an author of copyright can disseminate and make adaptations to their work freely. Under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) (the Act), criminal penalties may be incurred for the dissemination of work that it subject to copyright protection.

Licensing Your Copyright

An owner of a copyright can permit another to use their work. This is known as licensing your intellectual property (IP).

An author and the person seeking rights to his or her work can agree on the rights to use creative works and select on what terms and conditions.

An IP licence agreement can be express, implied, revocable or non-revocable, exclusive or non-exclusive. There is a lot of room for movement when you seek to license your copyright. Giving someone a licence to your copyright work will mean they are subject to the penalty offences under the Act.


The name suggests that copyleft is the direct opposite of copyright. Copyleft is the notion that a work is free and unrestricted. The idea is that copyrighted work is more valuable when it is openly shared and continually remixed. This movement seeks to build a “richer public domain” by providing alternatives to the automatic implications of copyright.

However, as outlined above, copyright is vigorously and automatically protected in Australia without the need for registration. As such, individuals and corporates can face severe penalties for infringing someone’s creative work.

Copyleft Licences

There are IP licences (as stated above, you can transfer your automatic IP rights to another) that try to incorporate the idea of copyleft. Such IP licences are:

  1. GNU General Public License;
  2. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License; and

The above are non-profit organisations devoted to expanding creative works for others to build legally and share. This article will now refer to the above IP licences as copyleft licences or licencing.

Copyleft licences all share aims of facilitating the use of copyright works by encouraging the dissemination of useful information. They are all widely known for their “open source movement” sentiments – and they seek to override copyright by way of licensing IP.

What Happens When You Sign Up To a Copyleft Licence?

Opting into one of these licences means you need to comply with the terms of the licence, and you lose some of your rights to prevent others from using your work. Usually, however, your work will be attributed to you each time someone else uses it. Each licence has specific terms.

Once signed up to a licence, all software or artistic work you create may be used, modified and distributed freely for commercial purposes. Each licence is modified, and sometimes it cannot be for commercial use. The same terms will bind anything that is derived from your work, encouraging the idea of free dissemination.

Who Opts Into the Copyleft Licence?

Copyleft licensing is favourable for software coders. After opting into the copyleft licence, the source code is readily available, and it allows others to modify and develop the code. The internet provides a suitable platform for sharing and developing source code and open collaboration results in faster and more efficient development.

Key Takeaways

Copyleft is an idea or movement that supports a free and unrestricted use of all work that is copyright. Some non-profit organisations seek to promote this idea through IP licensing arrangement. If you have any questions about using copyrighted material or drafting an IP licence agreement, get in touch with our IP team on 1300 544 755.


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