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Public rights in copyright: Re-defining the public domain

  • 05 Jun 2013
  • 18:00
  • Allens

A definition of 'public rights' is proposed, and it is then applied to Australian copyright law and practice.


The idea of ‘the public domain’ in copyright once had a very narrow meaning: works the copyright in which had expired. Its importance decreased somewhat as the duration of copyright expanded to life of the author plus 70 years. Over the last decade or so, new ideas and mechanisms to create public rights in works, such as Creative Commons licences, open source software, and Wikipedia, have increased awareness that ‘public rights’ are more complex than a few narrow ‘fair dealing’ exceptions. But this has left a lot of confusion concerning the relationship between these concepts.

This talk outlines a new and more comprehensive approach to the role of public rights in copyright. A definition of ‘public rights’ is proposed, and it is then applied to Australian copyright law and practice to show that there are fifteen distinct types of rights, liberties or abilities to which it is relevant in this country (though this is certain to vary between countries). These categories range from works that copyright does not protect at all, to statutory exceptions such as fair dealing, some (but not all) types of voluntary licences (such as CC licences), some compulsory/statutory licensing, and a de facto public domain which is now of enormous importance. The sum of these public rights is a new concept of the public domain, one which complements the private domain of copyright and is increasingly its equal in social and economic importance.

The talk will also touch lightly on the extent to which it is meaningful to talk of a ‘global public domain’ in copyright, factors that increase or decrease the effectiveness of the public domain, and what users of works want to achieve through public rights in copyright.

Graham Greenleaf AM

Graham Greenleaf AM is Professor of Law & Information Systems at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia where he has researched and taught since 1983. His current areas of research focus are Asian data protection and privacy laws, public rights in copyright, and the globalisation of free Internet access to legal information.

He is a co-founder and Co-Director of the Australasian Legal Information Institute (AustLII), and the Asia-Pacific Editor of Privacy Laws & Business International Report.

He was the inaugural President of the NSW Society for Computers & the Law, and the founding Director of the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at UNSW.

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