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Copyright protects material for a long time – but not forever. How long material is protected for depends on the type of material and when it was created or published.
Because copyright doesn’t last forever it is important to understand is how long copyright protects material for. The period of copyright protection for a particular work is called its ‘copyright term’. After the end of its copyright term a work or other-subject matter enters the public domain and everyone is free to use it however they like.
Determining if material is still protected can be difficult. In part that is because there have been many changes to the duration of copyright which results in different rules depending on when material was made and the type of material. The Free Trade Agreement with the United States Australia agreed to extend the general duration of copyright. The commencement of the Copyright Amendment (Disability Access and Other Measures) Act 2017 saw further changes to the duration of copyright. Importantly, these changes took away the rule that gave perpetual copyright to unpublished works – now the same rules applies to published and unpublished works.
We recommend the Department of Communications and the Arts’ information on their website about the ‘Duration of copyright’, in particular their tables that help to clarify the applicable duration rules.
Information on this page outlines the duration of copyright in a number of circumstances.
Duration for works
Works are generally protected for the life of the creator plus 70 years. When we say ‘life of the creator’ we mean ‘the end of the calendar year in which the creator died’ e.g. if the author of a literary work died in June 2005 the posthumous copyright protection applies for 70 years starting from 31 December 2005.
Duration for works with unknown authors (orphan works)
But what if you don’t know who the author of material is, and so can’t work out when they died? The Disability and Other Measures Act provided a solution for such situations. As of 1 January 2019 the basic rules for material where the creator is unknown are:
- Where the material was never made public the copyright duration is 70 years from when it was created;
- Where the material was made public within 50 years of its creation copyright lasts for 70 years from when it was first made public;
There are also some special rules that apply to material depending on whether it was made public before 1 January 2019. You should check out our fact sheets on the new copyright term provisions for the full details of the changes.
Duration for other subject matter
Copyright duration for subject-matter other than works depends on the type of material:
- Sound recordings and cinematographic films are protected for 70 years from when they were made public; or if they’ve never been made public 70 years from when they were created.
- Television and sound broadcasts are protected for 50 years from when they were broadcast.
- Published editions of works attract the shortest duration: the year they were published plus 25 years.
Duration for Crown copyright
The copyright duration for Crown copyright material – any original works, sound recordings or cinematograph films made by made by the State, made under the direction or control of the State or first published in Australia by the state – is 50 years after they were created.
When the copyright term has expired – the public domain
Because the duration of copyright is based on the end of the calendar year, New Year’s Day is also Public Domain Day, the day that new works pass into the public domain i.e. copyright protection of the material has expired. Once material enters the public domain, you can do anything with it.
All of the changes over the years can sometimes make it hard to tell if things are in the public domain in Australia. However, there are some materials where it is fairly clear. As of 1 January 2019, the following material is in the public domain in Australia:
- Photographs taken before 1955.
- Published literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works or engravings if the author died before 1955
- Computer programs if author died before 1955.
- Sound recordings made before 1955.
- Unpublished works with a known author who died before 1 January 1949.
- Works where the creator is unknown that were made public before 1 January 1949.
Our information on the public domain link to The public domain provides a more comprehensive overview of when copyright expires.
Copyright term flowcharts
The new copyright duration rules that came into effect on 1 January 2019 made changes for unpublished materials and orphaned works, further complicating Australia’s copyright term. To help we have created two flowcharts that step you through determining the copyright term of materials. View the webpage for the flowcharts to download them.