Australian copyright law, currently contained in the Copyright Act 1968, gives creators of particular material exclusive rights in it. The purpose of the copyright regime is to reward intellectual effort while also ensuring that copyright material enriches society by becoming freely available for use after a specified time. Australian copyright law affects communities and consultants involved in developing and publishing materials for language revitalisation. From an Indigenous perspective, however, there are problems with it, including:
- Copyright only applies to original material. However, much traditional Indigenous cultural knowledge is passed down from generation to generation and may not be considered original, and therefore may not be protected, under copyright law.
- Copyright applies only to specific works (eg literary works) and then only if these works are in material form. It does not protect spoken words if these are not recorded in some way.
- Copyright is generally owned by the people who create the copyright material or their employers, or the people or organisations to which a copyright owner transfers the copyright. However, Indigenous views of knowledge ownership are often communal, and not based on who actually created the knowledge.
- Copyright lasts, in general, for a limited time, then the material is in the public domain and permission to use it is no longer required. However, Indigenous views of knowledge ownership include regarding knowledge as for all time being handed down through the generations, and always remaining the property of the community.
A single language publication may have many contributors. The language itself will be contributed by the community, the language analysis and description by the linguist, the teaching ideas by the school. An important aspect of Australian copyright is that different parts of a publication can be owned by different contributors, and that copyright does not protect all kinds of contributions. For example, a multimedia CDROM may consist of several components: the story/content, audio recording, photos/images, transliteration/translation, alphabet and pronunciation guide, graphic design, the computer code of the programmer, and the copyright in these components may, at least initially, be owned by different people. The person who had the (mere) idea for the CD-ROM, however, does not have any copyright in that idea.
Communities and their consultants are aware that, under the Australian copyright regime and, unless written agreements that provide differently are entered into, copyright rights in language materials usually vest in non-Indigenous individuals or institutions, such as the Crown and funding bodies, not the community. These non-Indigenous individuals or institutions then have exclusive rights in these materials, eg to reproduce, publish, perform, communicate, and adapt them, for as long as copyright lasts or until they transfer copyright ownership to someone else who then has these rights. It is proposed, however, that a community and its consultants should all have a say as to what happens to their language publications, where copies are stored, and who can have access to them. The model agreement developed by the Arts
Law Centre of Australia facilitates this for materials published in the future (see below).