Intellectual property is a valuable asset for your business and it’s important that you take the necessary steps to secure its protection. One type of intellectual property that a business can own is copyright, which gives the owner an exclusive right to reproduce, reuse or republish the copyright material.

There is, however, a school of thought known as the open source movement which seeks to override copyright and allow the copyright owner to licence his or her works. This form of licensing is known as copyleft and is commonly used in relation to software and open source code. Allowing others to use and build upon intellectual property fosters collaboration and potentially the creation of bigger, better and more innovative things. But copyleft is irrevocable and copyright owners should consider this carefully.

What is Copyright?

Copyright attaches automatically to original artistic works – you don’t need to register the right. When an author or creator expresses the idea in material form, the work attracts copyright protection. Material work doesn’t have to be published to be afforded protection under copyright law. For example, if a story idea is written down but not published into a book, the work will still receive copyright protection.

For material work to gain automatic copyright protection, it must meet the following requirements:

  1. A literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work must be original and not merely a copy of another;
  2. An Australian resident or citizen must create the work; and 
  3. The work must have been made or first published in Australia.

While copyright protects the expression and execution of ideas, it does not protect the ideas themselves. Copyright prevents others from benefiting from copying or using the work without attributing the work to the creator or owner of the copyright. Others can republish or reproduce the copyright material only with the owner’s permission.

Copyright law in Australia does provide for exceptions that allow someone to reproduce part of the works for particular purposes such as reporting the news or for satire or parody. Some of these exceptions are still untested in Australia and users of copyright material should be careful in relying on these provisions.

Monitoring Infringement

It is the copyright owner’s responsibility to monitor copyright infringement. Their material works are an important asset and to ensure that others do not benefit from copying the work without correct attribution, the owner should monitor infringement.

What is Copyleft

Copyleft, as the name suggests, heads in the opposite direction to copyright. Playing on the word ‘copyright’, copyleft overrides copyright and promotes the concept that materials be freely used, copied and modified by others. Copyleft also requires all modified and extended versions of the material also be freely accessible, used and modified by others.

Key Features

Copyleft finds its roots in the open source movement, promoting the idea of collaboration. This means that some of the key features include:

  • Not restricting anyone from selling or redistributing the software;
  • Not restricting anyone from distributing modified or derivative works;
  • Applying the same licence terms to all parties to whom the software is distributed;
  • Providing the source code in a form that aids the development of the software;
  • Acknowledgement of each author’s contribution to each modification; and
  • No warranties supporting the performance of the software or that no one’s intellectual property rights have been infringed.

Why Software?

Copyleft licensing, frequently applied in relation to software, makes source code readily available and also 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.

Creative Commons and Copyleft

Copyleft licensing is a form of Creative Commons licence, which is a system whereby a creator allows others to use their work without infringing copyright (provided they attribute the work appropriately). The attribution requirements vary depending on the type of Creative Commons licence, generally on the basis that others acknowledge the original creator of the work that they use and adhere to the conditions attached via the licence.

A copyright owner cannot revoke a copyleft licence. Although an individual may initially create source code or other copyright material for the enjoyment of others, it may become profitable at a later stage. The original author should then consider his or her decision carefully in light of the purpose of the copyright material. 

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Deciding whether to compromise the automatic rights afforded to your original work to collaborate with others in developing and improving it can be a tricky decision to make. If you have any questions on copyright or copyleft, get in touch with our IP lawyers on 1300 544 755. 

Dhanu Eliezer

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