When training or presenting in the field of creative writing, I’m often asked about copyright: my first response is to inform people that I’m not a solicitor and therefore not qualified to give professional advice on the issue. That being said (and, yep, it counts as my disclaimer), I can share some general information about copyright law as it exists in Australia.
What is copyright?
Simply put, copyright is a legally binding system that gives you ownership over the creative content that you produce; it covers the work of your mind and knowledge, otherwise known as your intellectual property. In Australia, the scope of copyright is defined in the Australian Copyright Act (1968).
Generally, copyright law grants you, the owner and originator of the work, several ‘exclusive’ rights, including:
- The right to reproduce the work
- The right to distribute copies of the work
- The right to prepare derivative works (new versions)
- The right to perform the work
In essence, these ‘exclusive’ rights boil down to the following: no one can use or reproduce your work, even if they attribute you as its creator, without your permission. That’s one reason why a publisher will usually ask you to sign a contract before publishing and distributing your work – they need your permission to do so.
Copyright law facilitates some exceptions to the above exclusivity rights. For instance, people may use, share and remix/alter your work if you sign up for a Creative Commons License (a lot of photographers sell this work this way). Additionally, copyright is forfeited if the work exists in the public domain. The conditions under which a work passes into the public domain vary around the world. In Australia, copyright lasts for the life of the author or artist and 70 years from the end of the year in which they died. It’s also considered ‘fair’ to copy journal articles, or 10% of pages in a book, if used for educational or study purposes. Copyright law also allows for works to be quoted (and attributed) without permission in the course of completing criticism or reviews.
Ownership of Copyright
You, as the author or originator of a piece of work, are the first owner of copyright. (Note: under Australian law, where an employee is the author the first owner of copyright is the employer.) Significantly, there is no registration system for copyright in Australia – copyright is free and granted automatically as soon as the work is fixed in a tangible form. Still, it’s a good idea to place the following notice on your work: Copyright © 2017, by Author’s Name. All Rights Reserved. The reason for this notice is purely practical; it warns of the fact that you take copyright issues seriously and may subsequently deter people from infringing upon your copyright. If people use your work without permission (or straight out steal it), then they place themselves at risk of facing legal action. In short, you could take them to court and sue them for copyright infringement.
Australian authors are protected by copyright in most other countries. This is because Australia has signed a number of international treaties that protect copyright material, including the Berne Convention and the Universal Copyright Convention. You can read more about international copyright at Copyright.com.au.
How Far Does Copyright Reach?
It’s important to remember that copyright protects only the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves. As explained on the website Copyrightuser.org, this means that while Bridget Jones’s Diary is copyright protected, you are still able to write your own story about a woman looking for love and keeping a personal diary, as long as you make sure your work is substantially different to the one you are inspired by. What comprises ‘substantially different’ is a grey area. Proceed with great caution if you intend to reuse ideas that bear a strong similarity to those belonging to someone else. Better still, be innovative and create your own.
There’s plenty of ways to come up with fresh story ideas, such as blending imagination with real life experiences, reworking the struggles and tribulations experienced by characters you discover in someone else’s work (but steering away from their plot), drawing upon plot archetypes (more on this another time), allowing a particular setting you discover in a film or literary work to inspire ideas about a character’s circumstances, or inventing your own characters and dropping them into a historically significant event.
The bottom line is, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll instinctively know whether you’re borrowing too heavily from someone else.
Protecting Your Creative Work
To my mind, most people want to do the right thing in relation to copyright: publishers want to release great work and make money from related sales; competition organisers and emerging writer websites want to discover and share the work of talented writers and, thus, increase their audience base. Still, we need to be mindful of protecting our creative work.
In the end, there’s no absolute guarantee that people who encounter your work (whether it be publishers, editors, or competition organisers) won’t steal your ideas. It’s up to you to practise due diligence and check the credentials of those to whom you send your creative material. For instance, when considering which publishers to approach, read online reviews and keep an eye out for any complaints. Similarly, before entering a writing competition, verify that it’s reputable by investigating a little about the person/people operating it. These days the internet makes it relatively easy to find out information about organisations, companies and individuals. In other words, be sure to look before you leap.
While it’s standard for book, magazine and journal publishers to request authors to sign publication contracts, it should NOT be necessary to surrender your copyright. Instead, it’s common practice for the publishers to request ‘use rights’ for a certain amount of time. The conditions surrounding use rights vary with each publication contract. If a contract seems complicated, it’s best to seek legal advice. The Arts Law Centre of Australia is a great place to start.
In the meantime, happy innovating ~ Eileen