Frequently Asked Questions

What are the different types of copyright in music?

There are generally two different copyrights that exist in a commercially released music: 

  • the copyright in the musical work i.e. the lyrics and musical notes written by the songwriter, composer and/or lyricist; and
  • the copyright in the sound recording itself i.e. the recorded version of the musical work.

Who can own the copyright in a piece of music – the artist, record company, composer/publisher or all three?

There is generally more than one rights owner in any given track:

  • Musical works – the copyright in the musical work can be owned by the lyricist and composer and/or their music publisher
  • Sound recordings – the copyright in the sound recording can be owned by the performing artist and/or their record label/company

How do I know if a recording is still protected by copyright?

In Australia, copyright in a recording generally continues for 70 years after the year of first commercial release, even if this is some years after the year in which the recording was made.

When is the sound recording made public? The copyright in the Sound Recording has expired if: If not, the duration of copyright in the sound recording is
Made public before 1 January 2019 Made before 1 January 1955 Year first made public + 70 years
Made public on or after 1 January 2019 and within 50 years of being made Made before 1 January 1955 Year first made public + 70 years
Made public on or after 1 January 2019 but not within 50 years of being made Made before 1 January 1955 Year made + 70 years
Never made public Made before 1 January 1955 Year made + 70 years

Source: https://www.communications.gov.au/documents/duration-copyright

A useful indication of whether or not a recording is still subject to copyright protection is the “℗” notice which typically appears on CD covers or in digital stores such as iTunes, e.g. ℗ 2004 Acme Records Pty Limited.   This notice indicates that copyright exists in the recording (by use of the ℗ symbol), that the recording was first commercially released in the stated year (2004 in this example), and that the named person was the owner of copyright at the time the particular CD was manufactured. A recording that was given this ℗ notice would continue to be subject to copyright protection until 2074.

Is it illegal for me to copy and distribute music even if I’m not making any money out of it?

The question of whether or not you are copying and distributing music for profit may be relevant in assessing what penalties should apply, but it does not determine whether you are in breach of copyright. The basic legal principle is that you cannot copy or distribute music without the permission of all relevant copyright owners.

I have purchased a song from a legitimate source. Is it legal for me to make copies for my own personal use?

In the same way that buying a copy of a book doesn't give you ownership rights in the author's manuscript, the purchase of a copy of a digital music file or CD doesn't mean you can do anything that you like with the recording. 

Under exceptions in the Copyright Act, you do have the right to make a copy of a legitimately purchased recording that you own for playing on different devices for your private and domestic use. For your private use you can copy legitimately acquired sound recordings into another format (for example, from a CD or legitimately acquired digital file onto to your playback device).

Is all file-sharing illegal?

The vast bulk of peer-to-peer 'file sharing' is considered as illegal copying and transmission of copyright material. This is because the owners of copyright in most of the music being shared through these services have not authorised people to make and transmit copies of their recordings. 

However, this is a matter of choice for the copyright owners involved. It's fine to share a particular song via a peer-to-peer service if the copyright owners for that song agree that it can be copied and transmitted in this way without payment or restriction. 

However, most copyright owners do not allow this sort of copying and transmission because they see peer-to-peer activities as hurting sales of music and the livelihoods of people involved in the creation of the music such as the recording artists.

This is also the case for stream-ripping (the act of capturing and copying the audio of a stream). While some may allow the act, the majority of copyright owners have not given their permission for their songs to be stream-ripped from online platforms such as YouTube. Without the copyright owners’ permission, stream-ripping is also considered illegal.

What if I download music from a site from a different country than the one I’m in, where the law might be different?

Internet activities of this sort typically involve acts of copying, transmission, or distribution in both the country in which the site is located and the country from which the music is downloaded. As a result, both countries' laws will generally apply. Copyright owners may choose to take legal action in any country or countries in which an infringer is located. 

Importantly, you should be aware that if you download music files to your device located in Australia without the copyright owners' permission, you are committing copyright infringement under Australian law.

How can I help safeguard copyright in my own recordings?

Please see our guide here.