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Calculating the copyright term for a given work can be complicated because copyright legislation has changed over time.
For example, 70-year copyright terms came into effect in 2005 when the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) amendments were made to the Copyright Act. Prior to 2005, terms were generally 50 years. But, the 2005 changes were not applied retrospectively or to government publications, therefore, to calculate the copyright status of older works, it is necessary to determine whether or not copyright had expired by 2005.
On 1 January 2019 further changes to duration laws came into effect. These changes introduced new provisions to deal with works with unknown authors (i.e. orphan works) and also unpublished materials, which had previously remained in copyright indefinitely.
Once copyright expires, there are no longer any copyright-related restrictions on a work’s copying or re-use. That said, libraries may restrict certain uses of public domain materials for other reasons, such as donor restrictions, Indigenous cultural concerns, or fragility.
The information below sets out some of the general rules for copyright terms for different types of works. For comprehensive details, we recommend the Australian Government’s copyright duration information. You can also find more detailed fact sheets from the Australian Copyright Council and the Australian Libraries Copyright Committee.
Literary, dramatic, artistic and musical works
Generally, copyright lasts for 70 years following the death of the creator. However, this can change depending on whether the creator is known and whether (and when) the work has been made public. For example:
- If the work was first made public after the creator’s death, with the permission of the creator or their copyright heir, and before 1 January 2019, then the duration is 70 years from the date it was made public.
- If the creator is unknown and the work has never been made public, the duration is 70 years from its creation.
- If the author is unknown and the work was made public before 1 January 2019 or within 50 years of creation, the copyright period is 70 years from the date the work was made public.
A work is ‘made public’ when it is published, performed or made available online with the permission of the author. Anything made available illegally or under an exception has not been ‘made public’.
Generally, published works where the creator died before 1 January 1955 and unpublished works where the creator died before 1 January 1950 (rolls over every year) are now in the public domain, as are photographs taken before 1955.
Sound recordings and films
Generally, copyright lasts for 70 years from the year the material was created. However, if the work was made public before 1 January 2019 or within 50 years of creation, the period of protection is 70 years from the date the material was made public.
Generally, a sound recording made before 1955 is in the public domain. Older films, however, are not subject to this rule because of previous changes to copyright law. It is best to check the copyright for a pre-1969 film using the detailed resources from the Australian Government, Australian Copyright Council or the Australian Libraries Copyright Committee.