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Online social networking: copyright

Copying Stuff or Stealing? Social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube allow users to share their writings, photos, videos and other creations with the world. The downside is that people may not be able to control how their work is used by others. This fact sheet explains what copyright is and what it has to do with what you do online.

What is copyright?

To have copyright is to have the legal right to copy something. Copyright is the legal term to describe a person's ownership of their creative "works". Anything that is an original piece of writing, drama, music or art work is protected by copyright laws. Some examples include books, songs, photos, movies or paintings.

Copyright protects the way an idea is creatively expressed, not the basic idea itself. For example, you can write a song about the same topic as someone else but you can't copy their words or tune.

Copyright laws are quite complicated but the person who creates a work is usually the copyright owner. That means they are the only person allowed to do things like publish, perform or copy the work. They are also usually the only person allowed to make money from the work. Anyone who publishes, performs, or copies a work without the copyright owner's permission has broken the law.

Copyright protection is automatic. As soon as you write a song or paint a picture you have copyright in that work. You don't have to put the © symbol on your work in order for you to have copyright in that work.


Thom is 16 years old. He downloaded a couple of movies from the internet and planned to watch them at home when he was bored. He didn't want to pay to download the movies from a site like iTunes, so he downloaded copies of them for free from a peer-to-peer site. Even though Thom's only use for the copies was to watch the movies by himself, has Thom broken the law?

Yes! Someone owns copyright in the movies and Thom needed their permission to have a copy of them, even only for Thom's personal use. By downloading the movies from a peer-to-peer site, Thom got copies of the movies without the permission of the copyright owners.

Sharing your work online

Anything that is an original piece of writing, drama, music or art work can be protected by copyright laws. Generally, if you own the copyright, you are the only person allowed to:

  • Copy the work;
  • Make the work public for the first time (for example, by reciting or performing it);
  • Communicate the work online (for example, by posting it on Facebook);
  • Make a translation or image version of the work (for example, a cartoon).

Some people think copyright laws are too strict, especially online where people want to share more of their creative work. Organisations like "Creative Commons" have created a system described as 'some rights reserved' to help solve this problem. If someone has agreed to have their creative work protected by a Creative Commons license then you can copy, perform or publish their work as long as you let others know where you've taken the original work from. A work has a Creative Commons license if it has the (CC) symbol or states that you can use and copy the work.

There are also some uses of your work that don't break copyright law. These uses are usually called 'fair dealing'. It is generally 'fair dealing' for someone to use your work for research or study, for criticism or review, for parody or satire (a send up) or for reporting news.

Copyright and Social Media

Copyright covers works that are created or shared on social media websites. BUT, the website's terms and conditions may change your rights to the work. Some websites give themselves the rights to copy and use your work without asking you. For example, Facebook gives itself the right to use anything you post, including your photos, videos, art work and text. This is the same with YouTube, Google, Twitter, Flickr and Tumblr. You should always check a website's terms and conditions before using it to share your work. If you are not happy with the terms, use a different website that will let you share your work without limiting your rights.

Many of the creative works you can find online are protected by Australian copyright law. This includes works that were made overseas. It is illegal to copy, publish or perform copyrighted material without permission from the copyright owner, even if no-one is making money from using the work.

If someone has used your work without your permission…

If you think someone has used your copyrighted work without your permission, you should let that person know that you think they are breaking your copyright, and ask them to give you credit for it or take down your work.

If they refuse, you may want to seek legal advice. You can also report it to the website administrator (e.g. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube) and ask them to take down the work and even contact the internet service provider (ISP) and ask them to block the website.

What happens if you break copyright law?

If you break copyright law, penalties may apply.

Penalties include the copyright owner's right to try and take you to court to receive money for your use of their copyrighted material.

In some serious circumstances, breaking copyright laws is a crime and you may need to pay fines and even go to gaol. However, criminal penalties generally apply to companies breaking the copyright law especially to copy music, videos and computer software.

What can you do if someone claims you're breaking copyright laws?

You could tell an adult you trust. An adult can help you get information from the person about their work, why they think you have used it illegally and what they want you to do (they may just want you to give them credit for it). An adult can also help you figure out if your use of the work is OK because it is 'fair dealing'. If the person has said that they will take you to court you should seek legal advice. OR you can find out more by looking at the links below.

Want more information?

For FREE legal advice and information you can send a Lawmail.

The Australian Copyright Council has some detailed information sheets about different issues in copyrightlaw.

The Arts Law Centre provides advice to artists or arts organisations about protecting copyright.

National Children’s and Youth Law Centre logo with text      Legal Aid NSW logo

This information was last reviewed on 10 April 2012. This factsheet provides information about the law in NSW. It does not provide legal advice. If you need advice, or if you would like information about the law in a state or territory other thanNSW, please send us a Lawmail at http://www.lawstuff.org.au.

National Children's and Youth Law Centre, and the Children's Legal Service of Legal Aid NSW, 2010. You may copy, print, distribute, download and otherwise freely deal with this work for a non-profit purpose provided that you attribute the National Children's and Youth Law Centre and Legal Aid NSW as the owners. To reproduce or modify the work for any other purpose, you need to ask for and be given permission by the National Children's and Youth Law Centre.

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