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 a collaboration, the copyright may be jointly owned.

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

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

Also, 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. A book can include a number of images, each of which has a different copyright owner.

Assignment of rights

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.

Entitlement to receive Copyright Agency payments

See our Payments page.

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


The Australian Copyright Council publishes information sheets (such as ‘Ownership of Copyright) and detailed guides, offers a legal advice service and runs an annual training program.


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Reg Mombassa [Photo © Nick Cubbin]

Artist Profile

Reg Mombassa

Visual Arts

Copyright is important to me. While I don’t mind people being influenced by my work or appropriating it with permission, blatant unauthorised commercial rip-offs can be irritating and insulting.

Photo by Nick Cubbin

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