Can I use it if I find it online? Q&A about copyright in Australia

Social media has turned us all into writers, photographers and publishers. From solo operators and small business owners to corporate giants, we’re all posting, sharing, liking and blogging. But how can you be sure that your content isn’t being ripped off? And do you know what you can and can’t do with pictures, video or text created by others? Here are answers to some of the questions small business owners have about copyright.

I’ve seen that © symbol on everything from novels to photographs. What does it mean?

Copyright is a type of ‘property’ you create when you use your creative skill and labour to make original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works. It protects your exclusive rights to use your work in certain ways, for example to reproduce, publish or communicate your work.

Wait … my work has to be artistic?

The Copyright Act doesn’t judge you. It doesn’t have to be a good piece of work, it just has to be original, meaning created by you using your skill, labour and expertise, not copied, and generally longer than a slogan or title.

Nobody can steal my ideas then?

Copyright doesn’t protect the idea, only its ‘material expression’ or ‘fixed material form’, as the law puts it. So, say you write a blog post about amazingly productive project management techniques, only to find your competitor publishes on the same topic the next week. That’s not copyright infringement unless your competition has copied the words, graphics or other images you used. There is no copyright in ideas.

What do I have to do to get copyright for my work?

Nothing. In Australia, copyright protection is automatic under the Copyright Act from the moment the work is created. From time to time there are scams in which ‘copyright agents’ offer to register your copyright for a fee. Don’t fall for them. Copyright protection is free and automatic. (Designs, patents trade marks and plant breeder’s rights are different, so if you want to register these get legal advice.)

And why the ©?

It’s a good idea to use the symbol as a reminder that the work is not to be copied or republished without permission. Use it in this form: © Josephine Blogs 2015 joblogs@awesomeblog.com. That way it is clear who the owner is and how you can be contacted for permission to reproduce. It’s proven to deter copycats.

So if I want to use somebody else’s work I can, with their permission?

Yes. Contact the copyright holder and tell them exactly what you want to use and how you plan to use it. You’ll often find their details on the publication. Or you may have to do a bit of sleuthing. And make sure you get permission in writing just to be sure.

Are you saying it might take some detective work?

The creator is not always the copyright holder. For example, a writer employed by a company to create content for their website and social media is most likely not the copyright holder as they created the work in the course of their employment.

What … they lose the rights to their work?

Not entirely. Creators have moral rights over their work.

Sounds lofty.

It does, but it simply means these three rights: to be attributed as the creator; for your work not to be falsely attributed; and not to have your work treated in a derogatory way. So even if somebody else has copyright (your boss, for example) your moral rights can never be traded. Unless you agree otherwise, you have the right to be named as the author of your work. And, of course, if you are publishing somebody else’s work you should attribute them as its creator.

So let’s get practical. I thought if something was published online I was free to reuse it. Am I wrong?

Yes, you can’t use something just because it’s available online. Publishing online is generally no different to publishing old style. There’s a myth that you can republish stuff off the internet because it is in the public domain. But in law, ‘the public domain’ means that copyright has expired (usually 70 years after the death of the creator).

What about comments people make on my website and my social media pages?

The contributor holds copyright and you have a limited ‘licence’ to use their material on your site.

I’m still on my copyright P plates. Please explain.

A licence really just means permission. A copyright owner can license another person to use their work subject to certain conditions, such as paying a fee or royalty, using it in a specific place or for a defined length of time. There are also what are known as statutory licences, but these generally only apply to educational institutions.

Are all licences created equal?

There are two kinds: excusive and non-exclusive. The exclusive kind transfers all of the rights under copyright (except moral rights) to the licensee for as long as the licence runs. The non-exclusive kind transfers only some of the rights, as specified in a contract, to the licensee.

Should I worry about this?

When you post to social media you are usually granting Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook and the like a licence to use your content. Check the terms and conditions.

Do you really mean I should read that long page of legalese before I click ‘I agree’?

Yes, really, check it before you click ‘I agree’. You may be giving the social media site permission to use your content in any way they like, including commercially. The most popular sites don’t ask you to transfer exclusive rights, but they can. And if they do, you might be prevented from using the work you created how you’d like to.

What if somebody else posts stuff that infringes copyright to a site I run?

You must make sure others don’t post infringing material on your site, or use anything on it in a way that infringes the creator’s copyright. So, for example, you can’t give permission for a designer to use a photograph they found on your website that was contributed by somebody else.

Can I quote from another work?

That’s generally okay. The exception (there’s always one in copyright law) is if the quote forms a substantial part of the work it comes from. This doesn’t necessarily refer to length, but to whether the part is ‘important’, ‘essential’ or ‘distinctive’. In general, it’s wise to get permission to use more than a few lines from a book or report. The law also provides exceptions for criticism or review, or reporting the news, or study and research.

This is getting serious. What else do I need to know?

I’m not a lawyer and everything I’ve written here is general. If you need to know about a specific situation, please ask a legal professional for advice. I’ve included a list of websites that have heaps of interesting and useful information.

More about copyright

Arts Law Centre of Australia 

Information, a seminar program and limited legal services. You can buy sample contracts on the site.

Attorney-General’s Department, Australian Government 

Publishes a Short guide to copyright.

Australian Copyright Council

A large range of information sheets for creators and users of copyright. They run an excellent seminar series (next on 25 August 2015 in Sydney). For only $75 you can take the online course in copyright essentials.

The Copyright Agency

Provides simple licensing solutions so you can use copyright-protected words and images. Fees from licences are paid to members.

© Alison Hill