Who owns copyright

First owner of copyright

As a general rule, the first owner of copyright in a work is the creator, unless the creator has assigned copyright in advance (e.g. to a client or a publisher).

Where, however, there is no agreement about who owns copyright, the following will be the first owner of copyright:

  • the creator's employer, if the creator is an employee (not a freelancer) and created the work as part of their job
  • a client who commissions a portrait, private photograph (e.g. of a wedding), video or audio recording
  • the Commonwealth or a State if the material was created for, or first published by, a Commonwealth or State government department or agency.

Where the work is the product of collaboration copyright may be jointly owned.

Special provisions for Staff journalists

There are special provisions for employed journalists. Unless there is an agreement to the contrary, employed journalists own copyright in relation to photocopying, and inclusion of their work in a book. More here.

Special provisions for old material

In some cases, the rules vary for old material. For example, there are different provisions for commissioned photographs taken before July 1998, and works created by employed journalists before July 1998.

Different owners for different copyright rights

Different people can own different copyright rights in a work. For example, one person may own copyright for reproducing the work as a printedbook, and another for publishing online.

Ownership of copyright can be transferred

Ownership of copyright rights can be transferred from one person to another by assignment, and when a person dies (under the person's will, or under the rules that apply when someone dies without a will).

Identifying the current owner of copyright often requires identifying the first owner of copyright and any subsequent transfers of ownership.

One item can have more than one copyright owner

One item can contain many separate works, each with a different copyright owner. For example, an anthology contains works by different authors, each of which may have a different copyright owner. Similarly, the copyrights in images in a book may have different owners.


This information is for guidance only. It is not legal advice.

More from Australian Copyright Council

The Australian Copyright Council publishes information sheets and detailed guides, offers a legal advice service and runs an annual training program.

Information sheets include:

  • Ownership of Copyright

18 July 2012