Who gets copyright?

Contributed by Yasmin Thus and current to 16 April 2018

The general rule under the Copyright Act is that copyright will, at default, belong to the person who created the copyright material. However, there are some exceptions to this rule as set out below.


An employer will own copyright in any material their employee creates in the course of their employment. Freelance artists and contractors who create material on commission for a client are not usually considered to be employees.

For people employed as staff who are creating material for newspapers, magazines and other periodicals, the employer will own most of the copyright, but the employee will usually own copyright for some purposes (photocopying and publication in books).

Further information for journalists may be found in the Australian Copyright Council information sheet Journalists & Copyright.

Freelance photographers, engravers and people doing portraits

At default, freelance artists and contractors will own copyright in the material they create, and their client will be able to use the material under licence for the purpose it was commissioned. The one exception to this is where a person commissions an artist to create material for private or domestic purpose (e.g, wedding photographs, family portraits). Where an artist has been commissioned by a client to create a photograph, painting, or portrait for a private or domestic person, the copyright owner will be the client, not the commissioned artist.

State, Territory or Federal Government

A State, Territory or Federal Government will usually own copyright in material created, or first published by it or under its direction or control. See the Australian Copyright Council information sheet Ownership of Copyright for further details.

Copyright can be assigned (ie., transferred) from one copyright owner to another. In order an assignment to be effective, it must be in writing and signed by or on behalf of the owner of copyright to be legally effective. It is common for a copyright owner to seek payment to sell their copyright to another person.

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