Copyright is personal property [Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) s 196(1)] and may be dealt with by either assignment (legally transferring the property to another person) or licence (permission). An assignment must be in writing signed by or on behalf of the copyright owner [s 196(3)]. However, the courts may enforce an unwritten agreement in some circumstances.
An assignment of copyright may be limited so that it applies to a particular territory, to particular aspects of the copyright (for example, reproduction only) or for a specified time only [s 196(2)]. There may also be a full assignment where the copyright owner transfers all of the rights worldwide for the whole period of the copyright. It is also possible to assign future copyright [s 197(1)]. An author, for example, can assign copyright in an unwritten book.
Most copyright owners wish to retain ownership of copyright and prefer to deal with their copyright by way of licence only. A licence is a permission to do an act that otherwise would be an infringement of copyright. Licences may either be exclusive or non-exclusive and can be limited to particular rights or territories, or confined to a particular period of time. In some circumstances a non-exclusive licence can be implied from the conduct of the parties. Legal advice should be sought in any transaction involving the assignment or licensing of copyright.
The Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) also imposes some compulsory licences that allow certain bodies such as educational institutions and the government to use material in return for payment of a fee. [Parts VA and VB (educational institutions) and s 182B — s 183E (government).]
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