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Archives In Brief 74 - Research and copyright

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Outlines how copyright affects your use of State archives. It only provides general information and should not be used as legal advice.

More detailed information on copyright can be obtained from the:

Australian Copyright Council
PO Box 1986, Strawberry Hiils NSW 2012
Telephone: 61 2 9318 1788
Fax: 61 2 9698 3536

What is Copyright?

Copyright is the right of a person or organization — the copyright holder — to control the reproduction and use of a range of works including written material (such as letters and documents), musical works, artistic works, films and broadcasts.

Copyright also protects the right to communicate a work to the public, including publication, posting material on a web site and e-mailing and faxing material to the public.

The rights of copyright holders are contained in the Copyright Act 1968 (Commonwealth). How the Act has been interpreted also provides a basis for the way the law is applied.

Ownership of copyright in State archives

The Government of New South Wales owns the copyright in a majority of State records held as State archives. Copyright in State records produced by public servants, and in many cases individuals and companies contracted by the NSW Government, is held by the NSW State Government not by the individual author.

The NSW State Government does not hold the copyright in State archives provided by private individuals (such as letters) and other governments.

How State Records provides copies

State Records provides you with copies of records only for the purpose of research or in order for you to seek permission to publish.

The fee you pay for copying material held by State Records is only a copying fee. Accepting payment of the fee is not an approval to publish or use the material for anything but research or study.

When do I need to consider copyright?

If you reproduce a work in any way, including by photocopying, photographing, transcribing, scanning, downloading and publishing you should be considering copyright issues.

When can I reproduce a work?

You can reproduce a work if:

  • it is no longer in copyright
  • you are permitted under the 'fair dealing' provisions of the Copyright Act
  • permitted under another provision of the Copyright Act
  • you have the permission of the copyright holder.

When is a work no longer in copyright?

The length of time a work is protected varies depending on the type of material.

Unpublished material, for which the NSW Government holds the copyright, remains in copyright indefinitely. If the NSW Government holds the copyright and the work is published, copyright in most cases expires 50 years after the year of first publication.

For examples of the categories that most affect your use of our material see the table at the end of this AIB.

Once the copyright has expired you do not need permission to use the material.

What is 'fair dealing'?

The fair dealing provisions of the Copyright Act allow you to reproduce a reasonable portion of a work for research or study, criticism or review and news reporting without the permission of the copyright holder provided the use 'fair'. To use a 'substantial' part of a work is, however, not considered to be a fair use of a work.

The Copyright Act does not narrowly define what constitutes a substantial part of a work. A substantial part does not just refer to the quantity of the work reproduced, it can also refer to the quality. That means important, recognisable or distinct parts may be considered substantial.

What are my responsibilities?

When using material at State Records it is your responsibility to:

  • determine if the material you want to use is still in copyright
  • identify who owns the copyright, and
  • contact the copyright owner(s) to obtain permission for use of copyright material.

When using material under the 'fair dealings' provisions or section 51 it is important to acknowledge the work and author appropriately.

If you follow the advice on citations in Archives in Brief 10 you will normally have provided a sufficient acknowledgement.

How does State Records help?

State Records:

  • ensures that in providing you with copies of material we are not breaching the Copyright Act
  • assists you establish if copyright is held by the NSW Government, and
  • helps you understand the requirements of the Copyright Act.
  • State Records' staff do not provide advice on copyright problems or trace copyright owners.

How do I get permission to use State archives?

If the Crown holds copyright and the material is held as State archives by State Records you should seek permission by writing to:

Manager, Public Access
State Records
PO Box 516
Kingswood NSW 2747

State Records will advise you if permission should also be sought from the government department or agency that created the records (or its successor).

Permission to publish State records in the custody of government departments, agencies or local government should be sought from the relevant public office.

For more information on publishing State archives please see Archives in Brief 11.

Further reading

The Australian Copyright Council produces a range of publications, including Information Sheets, which cover a range of topical issues.

They cover a range of topics, including:

  • Photographers and copyright (G11)
  • Duration of copyright protection (G23)
  • Quotes and extracts: copyright obligations (G34)
  • Family histories and copyright (G42)
  • Owners of copyright: how to find (G51)
  • Copying for research or study (G53)
  • Government and copyright (G62)
  • Digital Agenda amendments: an overview (G65)
  • See the Information Sheets on the Australian Copyright Council website

Extension of protection period for non-government copyright

From 1 January 2005 the protection period for non-government owned copyright was extended. The extended protection period does not revive copyright in material where the copyright expired before 1 January 2005.

General guide to copyright protection periods

There are many categories of works with varying durations of copyright protection. The list below provides some examples that most affect your use of our records. You should consult the Copyright Act or the Australian Copyright Council for more information.

The period of protection continues to the end of the year in which the copyright expires.

Type of materialProtection period

Government owned copyright in:

Literary works (includes written material)

Dramatic works

Musical works

50 years from date published (remains in copyright if unpublished)

Artistic works (except engravings)

50 years from year of making

Made before 1 May 1969
Made after 1 May 1969

50 years from year made
50 years from year published (remains in copyright if unpublished)

Non-Government owned copyright in:

Literary works

Dramatic works

Musical works

Published or performed before the author's death

Copyright expired by 1 Jan 2005 if creator died before 1 Jan 1955

If still in copyright on 1 Jan 2005 then 70 years after the death of the creator

Literary works

Dramatic works

Musical works

Published or performed after the author's death

Copyright expired by 1 Jan 2005 if made public before 1 Jan 1955

If still in copyright on 1 Jan 2005 then 70 years after first published or performed

Artistic works

Copyright expired by 1 Jan 2005 if creator died before 1 Jan 1955

If still in copyright on 1 Jan 2005 then 70 years after death of the creator


Copyright expired by 1 Jan 2005 if taken before 1 Jan 1955

If still in copyright on 1 Jan 2005 then 70 years after death of the creator

© State of New South Wales through the State Records Authority, 2003.
This work may be freely reproduced and distributed for most purposes, however some restrictions apply. See our copyright notice or contact us.