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Copyright law: fact or fiction

Tara Watson

The Australian Copyright Council dispels some of copyright law's greatest myths.
Copyright law: fact or fiction

Australian Copyright Council legal team and seminar presenters from left to right, James Cheatley, Megan West and Nathan Webster with Fiona Phillips, Executive Director, for more information visit ACC seminars

‘There is all this misinformation out there and it’s your responsibility as someone creating content or using others people’s content to educate yourself and make up your own mind about copyright,’ said Fiona Phillips, Executive Director at the Australian Copyright Council (ACC).

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The following are some common copyright law myths and the ACC wants to set the record straight.

The Copyright Act is out of date

It is often assumed that the long-formed traditions of copyright law do not translate into the web-sharing culture in the age of the internet. Some suggest that as the Copyright Act is dated from 1968, it is ill-suited to conform to the internet. However Phillips said this has little grounding in fact.

‘That argument is older than the Copyright Act itself. The first copyright statute actually dates from 1709.  With each advance in technology, from the printing press through to computer software, people have argued that copyright doesn't work. History shows otherwise. Every time it has adapted, because there are core principles that apply,’ said Phillips. 

Copyright stifles creativity

Phillips said that instead copyright law encourages creativity by boosting artistic incentive to create original work while simultaneously giving artists control over how their work is put to market and shared.

'I actually have a different view, I think that it empowers artists,’ said Phillips. ‘Copyright facilitates artists having control over their creation and it doesn’t mean that you can’t use third-party content, all it means is you might have to ask for permission. This gives artists control over their work and enables them to earn a living’.

Phillips adds that copyright law cannot protect ideas, styles or techniques. Phillips said that the copyright system recognizes the creative process, for example there are several exceptions to copyright, whereby the way it is used can mean that permission does not need to be acquired under fair dealing, this includes content used for criticism, review or parody and/or satire.

You don’t need permission if you copy less than 10 percent

It is often assumed that if only a very small portion of material is taken and re-produced then permission does not need to be granted. Whether it’s 100 words of text, a portion of graphics or a small pull from a song, Senior Legal Officer at ACC Megan West said the amount copied is irrelevant.

‘In relation to the amount you can use without getting permission, there is no definitive rule, it is about whether what you have taken is important, substantial or something distinctive from that original material,’ said West.

‘We have a bit of a rule of thumb here, that if you have taken something that is worth using then you're probably using enough to warrant checking whether you need to get permission’.

You can use content without permission provided you’re not making money

If content is being used without any financial gain, it does not automatically equate to permission being granted to use the material.

‘We often get not-for-profit organisations approaching us, saying they are a not-for-profit and they want to do this but there is no exception for not-for-profit purposes,’ said Phillips.

If the content is unpublished, copyright doesn’t apply

Copyright applies to both published and unpublished content, as soon as it is fixed in some way, whether it is recorded, written down or saved to a disk. Even if the work was never made available to the public or commercially published, it is still subject to copyright.

'The beauty of copyright is there is no registration system or any kind of formal requirements for making it come alive. Copyright arises as soon as you make material that is original. By original we mean something that is not just a mere copy of something else. So as soon as you make something and it has been recorded or written down in some way then it becomes copyrighted,' said West.

If it’s on the internet, anyone can use it

The nature of the internet may make it seem like it’s okay to freely take and reproduce content, be it music, video, images or the written word but in fact the internet is no different and is subject to the same guidelines. West said that just because content is freely available on the internet, that does not make it free to use.

'That's one of the greatest myths about copyright, about material on the internet, that if you can right-click and copy it, you should be able to use it,' said West.

‘The fact that it is on the internet is kind of irrelevant. It's the same in a non-digital environment, if something is made available for you to pick up and take it, that doesn't mean you can have it for free’.

It's difficult to get permission to use content

With guidelines to adhere to and penalties imposed for breaking the rules, some can feel that gaining permission and getting a license to use material is in the ‘too-hard basket’. However, West said that getting permission is usually an easy task.

‘Just shoot them an email, get in touch and ask if you can use it and nine times out of ten people are really happy that you got in touch and respect the fact that it’s their material and you are asking permission,’ said West.

Copyright law is too complicated

It is important to stay informed about copyright and West said that ACC exists to help people to work with copyright and make copyright law as accessible as possible.

'I think in fact the beauty of Australian copyright law is that it has quite clear rules on what copyright owners’ rights are.Situations in which other people are allowed to use copyright material without permission are also clearly set out,' said West. 'If anyone is having trouble wrapping their head around it, there are some really great resources in plain English particularly from our organisation. If you take the time to find organisations that decode it, then you'll be right’.

Want to get your head around copyright but short on time? The ACC has recently introduced online training, making it easy to do a Copyright Essentials Course on the bus on the way to work.

Such initiatives reflects the work of the ACC simplifying copyright for all creatives. ‘We are trying to make it accessible to people in ways that suit them,’ concluded Phillips.

Options to further educate oneself are accessible on the ACC website, boasting a large collection of fact sheets, an extensive book collection, while also hosting training seminars.

ACC is partially funded by the Australia Council for the Arts.  Its mission is to support a creative Australia by promoting the benefit of copyright for the common good. For more information visit the Australian Copyright Council.

About the author

Tara Watson is a Melbourne journalist & artsHub writer. Follow her on Twitter @TarasWatson

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