On 1 January 2019, changes to the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) came into effect to simplify and standardise the duration of copyright protection in Australia.

The most significant change relates to the duration of copyright for unpublished materials, which were previously protected for an indefinite period of time. Now, all literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works will have a standard term of protection: the life of the author plus 70 years, regardless of whether the material has been made public.

In the case of orphaned works (where the author is unknown), or sound and film recordings, copyright will only subsist for 70 years after creation, unless those materials are made public within 50 years of creation, in which case copyright will subsist for 70 years after being made public.

Finally, where copyright material is owned by the Commonwealth or State Government (i.e. Crown materials), copyright will subsist for 50 years after creation. 

'Made public'

The term 'made public' is broader than 'publication'. The concept of 'publication' would typically involve supplying or offering copies of the material to the public (whether by sale or otherwise). In contrast, copyright material may be 'made public' if it is merely made available to the wider public. For example, musical works that have previously been reduced to a material form may be made public if they are performed in public or communicated by other means to the public, and a film may be made public if it is seen or heard in public. 

How the changes apply in practice 

  • book where the author is known: if the author of a book died in 1950, and their work was not made public prior to January 2019, copyright will expire at the end of 2020 – however, if that book was made available online before the new laws came into operation, in say 2018, copyright would subsist until the end of 2088 (i.e. 70 years after being made public)
  • painting where the artist is unknown: if an unknown artist created a painting in 1970, but has not made that painting public, copyright will expire at the end of 2040 – however, if the painting is exhibited to members of the public in 2020 with the author's permission, copyright would instead subsist until the end of 2090 (i.e. 70 years after being made public)
  • film recordings: if a film was produced in 2000 but was never made public, copyright will expire at the end of 2070 – however, if the film is screened to the public in 2030, copyright would instead subsist until the end of 2100 (i.e. 70 years after being made public). 

To see a larger version of our infographic, click here.

What happens once copyright expires?

Copyright cannot be renewed or revived by subsequent publication of the material. This means that once copyright expires, the material will enter the public domain, and anyone may use it without infringing copyright. 

This publication does not deal with every important topic or change in law and is not intended to be relied upon as a substitute for legal or other advice that may be relevant to the reader's specific circumstances. If you have found this publication of interest and would like to know more or wish to obtain legal advice relevant to your circumstances please contact one of the named individuals listed.