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Research Guides

A Nation's Imagination: Australia’s Copyright Records, 1854–1968

A Nation's Imagination: Australia's Copyright Records, 1854–1968

The National Archives of Australia

The National Archives of Australia ensures that full and accurate records documenting Commonwealth government activities are created and kept. From this massive body of information the Archives selects, cares for and makes available to all, those records of continuing value. This collection constitutes the archives of the Commonwealth government, a vast and rich resource for the study of Australian history, society and people.

The collection spans almost 200 years of Australian history. Its main focus is on material documenting Commonwealth government activity since Federation in 1901. The Archives also has significant holdings of nineteenth-century records about functions transferred by the colonies to the Commonwealth government at the time of Federation and subsequently. The records described in this guide are a small but significant part of the collection and include both nineteenth- and twentieth-century records.

Access to the National Archives collection is provided free of charge in public reading rooms located in each capital city. Researchers are assisted by specialist reference staff and are provided with reference tools to help them identify and use the records in the collection. These reference tools include the RecordSearch and PhotoSearch databases, guides, publications and fact sheets. Researchers unable to visit a reading room may seek information and help by telephone, mail, facsimile or email

RecordSearch provides information about agencies, persons and series as well as descriptions of over two million individual items. RecordSearch is available for online searching in reading rooms located in all offices of the National Archives, at the  Australian War Memorial  and on the  National Archives website .

The National Archives website ( provides more information about the Archives, its collection and the services it offers. A visit to the site will help researchers determine whether the Archives holds records relevant to their research. Fact sheets on various topics are also available on the Archives website. The site also provides links to other archives and libraries in Australia and overseas.

About this guide

This guide focuses on fine arts and literary, dramatic and music copyright under colonial and, from 1907, Commonwealth administrations. This guide's genesis was in research undertaken to develop the National Archives exhibition Scene Stealers: Australian Theatre 1870–1955. This exhibition featured theatre and film scripts, correspondence, photographs, playbills and theatrical ephemera from records in the Archives copyright collection. The exhibition aimed to stimulate and entertain its viewers and give them the opportunity to reflect on the way Australian culture and identity was represented in the past. The exhibition also served to give a visual presentation of some of the National Archives records and raise public awareness of the Archives' existence and cultural significance.

As well as expanding on the record selection made for Scene Stealers, this guide includes record series dealing with literary and artistic copyright held by the Archives. Given the large volume of items in this collection – over 80 000 in one series alone – only a few examples of items have been provided. These examples demonstrate the diversity of material within the collection and provide insight into the range of individuals and organisations who protected their works under copyright legislation.

What is copyright?

The concept of copyright evolved over several hundred years. Its origins lie in regulations governing and protecting the rights of printers. The earliest reference to authorial rights occurred in the British Statute of Anne (1709), which specified the periods of time during which printers and publishers held rights to works before those rights reverted to the authors. This enshrined authors' rights in law, making them important figures in the literary world.

The Statute also provided for forfeiture of infringing copies and financial penalties.1 From the time of the Statute's enactment until the passing of Imperial legislation in 1911, copyright legislation consisted of a series of complex and inconsistent piecemeal Acts.

The British Copyright Act 1842 is the basis of modern copyright law. This Act defined the many items – from pamphlets to published literature, manuscripts, music and maps – included in the term 'book'. To gain legislative protection, first publication had to be in the United Kingdom, by a British subject or an alien resident in the Dominions, and registration of the work was necessary.

Some protection existed under international laws. Other categories of rights – eg performance, musical, lectures and fine arts – were protected separately under individual Acts.2

In 1875 a British royal commission recommended that British copyright legislation then in force (eg the Licensing Act 1662, the Statute of Anne and the 1842 legislation) should be improved and codified.

The royal commission strongly advised the British government to enter into a bilateral copyright agreement with the United States to provide reciprocal protection for British and American authors.

International copyright

Conventions on copyright have been held regularly throughout the lifetimes of the Acts referred to in this guide, and each time they have resulted in amendments and revisions to international copyright legislation. In 1886 representatives from ten countries met in Berne, Switzerland to discuss the provision of uniform international copyright protection legislation for authors of literary and artistic works. This resulted in the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, a document that took years to write and was amended at various meetings of Berne Convention nation members.3

The United Kingdom was a founding signatory to the Berne Convention, which it ratified in 1887. The British Parliament passed its International Copyright Act in 1886, abolishing the requirement to register foreign works and introducing an exclusive right to import or produce translations. British copyright law was extended to works produced in the British Dominions.4

This extension of rights had important consequences for authors in the British Dominions. An author who published a 'book' in the UK acquired copyright throughout the Dominions. However, when an author published his work first in a Dominion, he could only acquire copyright in the Dominion where a law provided for it. He would not acquire copyright of it in the UK or in other British Dominions. One famous casualty of this was the Australian author Marcus Clarke who first published For the Term of His Natural Life in the Colony of Victoria. He lost the Imperial copyright and made little profit when his work was published in London.5

Information about colonial and Commonwealth copyright law can be found in Chapters 2 and 3.

Changes to national and international copyright laws and the proposals put forward for discussion at copyright conventions reflect the development in artistic media throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, particularly in relation to radio, film and film sound and music, and the recording and broadcasting of it. While this guide does not directly trace Australia's participation in the evolution of copyright law (both international and domestic), records relating to the various conventions and other discussions will be of value to researchers interested in copyright law rather than the registrations and exhibits submitted under it.

Registering copyright in Australia

By registering copyright over their work, individuals and organisations were able to protect their work legally against unauthorised use. Until the enactment in Australia of the Copyright Act 1968,6 applicants seeking copyright protection had to submit to the Commonwealth Government a registration form that detailed, among other things, their personal particulars and information about the owner of the copyright (if not the creator) and the work itself.

Details from these forms were then transferred into registers with numerically ordered entries, which became the copyright registration number once registration was accepted. Details of any assignment or licensing of rights – whole or partial – to other parties were also copied into these registers. A fee accompanied all registration applications and the Registrar, if satisfied with the application, would then issue a certificate of registration. Fees were also charged for registrations of subsequent assignments and licenses.

Until the registration forms were properly completed and submitted, and all fees had been paid, works were not registered. It is clear that there were many difficulties and much frustration involved in registering work for copyright, particularly when legislative changes occurred or submitted material failed to meet the registration criteria. Early Commonwealth registrations are peppered with letters of complaint about the slowness of the administrative process and the inaccessibility of the new Commonwealth offices.

Ownership of copyright

The intent of the various copyright Acts was not to create an archive of social history, inspiration for writers or another ready source for genealogists (though these records now meet all those needs), but for legislative administration.

Following the proclamation of the Copyright Act 1968, arrangements were made with the Attorney-General's Department to transfer all copyright applications and exhibits to the National Archives, which holds them in custody to preserve them from avoidable deterioration and to manage them for public accessibility. The records remain in the control of the agency responsible for their management prior to their transfer to the Archives.

However, the copyright on many of these records is still held by the individuals and businesses that registered them. If you wish to publish an item from the collection, or reproduce it in any way, you must refer to current copyright regulations. Additional information on copyright obligations can be found on the Archives Fact Sheet 8, which can be viewed online at More specific information may be obtained from the organisations listed in Appendix 2.

Record descriptions

Image 2: <em>Capturers of the Moonlite Gang of Bushrangers</em> (names of policemen included with item) Roberts Richards & Co.,1879.

Image 2: Capturers of the Moonlite Gang of Bushrangers (names of policemen included with item) Roberts Richards & Co.,1879.
NAA: C2229, 79/22
Enlarge image - View image gallery

In this guide, information about the Archives' copyright collection has been grouped under relevant headings, and within each section the descriptions of series and items are then grouped as registers, indexes, forms and exhibits to enable researchers to cross-refer to all sources of information about each record.

Each entry in the guide describes a group of records maintained together as a series. A series is made up of items, which are often individual files (sometimes volumes of registration forms, sets of cards, photographs, etc) received by the National Archives from the creating agency or person. A series will usually maintain records in the same order in which they were arranged by the agency that created them. Series usually consist of many items (ie files), but occasionally may consist of just a few or even a single item. Note that descriptions of items within particular series are usually only a selection of what is held.

Sample Record

1 Commonwealth literary copyright from 1907 to 1969
2 This series is of particular interest to film and theatre researchers. Under the Commonwealth Copyright Act 1905, A1336 was the main administrative series for Commonwealth literary copyright from 1907 to 1969. It contains over 80 000 items, all of which have been entered individually on RecordSearch. Entries give full details of the title, the proprietor of copyright, the author or creator and whether the exhibit is held by the Archives. Keyword searches on RecordSearch for titles, copyright owners or creators should yield plenty of research gold.
3 National Archives, Canberra (Sydney)
Quantity: 652 metres (0.5 metres)

Recorded by:
1907–13 Copyright Office [I] (CA555 [4])
1913–30 Copyright Office [II] (CA556)
1930–69 Copyright Office [III] (CA555 [5])

6 Ball-punching and high-pedestal dancing apparatus without guy ropes, 1907 7 A1336, 61
By Dorothea Marie Ireland; performing right not accepted; copy enclosed.

Key to record sample

1 Table title – describes the subject area of records listed in the table.

2 Subject sub-heading – indicates significant subject areas – where there is more than one – of records listed in the table.

3 Location sub-heading – used to indicate the office of the National Archives or name of the institution in which records are located.

4 Title of record series – a series is the organisational arrangement used by creators of records to control and manage records. It may contain one or more record items. Some series may contain hundreds or thousands of items. The date range of the series contents is included at the end of the title.

5 Series number – the archives control number applied to the series. This number is necessary to identify records for storage and retrieval purposes. In cases where the series consists of a single item the series number will be sufficient information to allow for its retrieval.

6 Item title – A record item is usually a file or volume (it may also be a photograph, map or other format). The title is usually applied by the person or agency creating the record. The date range of the item contents is included at the end of the title.

7 Series number and item control symbol – The combination of series number and item control symbol identifies a record item and allows for its storage and retrieval. This information about an item is almost always required for it to be retrieved from storage.

Types of records

The copyright records in this guide generally fall into three categories:

  • registers and indexes of authors, title, etc, to whom copyright was registered or assigned;
  • exhibits submitted as evidence of copyright; and
  • correspondence regarding applications for copyright.

Registers and indexes record standard information about the applicant and the work, although systems of control and arrangement vary slightly. Exhibits may take the form of typed or handwritten manuscripts of everything from novels to songs, published books and music, pamphlets, flyers, lithographs, photographs, drawings, cards, postcards, prints, paintings, maps, opera scores, statues or models. Slightly different levels of information are recorded in the exhibits, registers and correspondence, and cross-checking all three can form a more complete picture of a work and author than reference to the application forms and exhibits alone.

Correspondence consists principally of letters and completed forms, although frequently files also hold additional papers, ranging from legal agreements about the registered work, copies of wills, to requests, pleas and complaints to the Registrar, submitted on everything from imposing letterhead to pencil scrawled scraps torn from pocket notebooks.

As some items cited in this guide demonstrate, acceptance for copyright registration was not dependent on the presence of artistic merit, good taste or sensitivity in the work. This did not mean that copyright was always granted regardless of the material presented. The Commonwealth Copyright Act 1905 was the first Australian legislation with a 'morality clause' – it specifically prohibited copyright in works containing elements of blasphemy or indecency.7 There are instances in the collection – such as Listen to This, a set of postcards printed with ditties, and a play, The Jerry Builders8 – of rights being refused on the grounds of obscenity.

Access to the records

To see original records, a researcher has to visit the National Archives office where the material is held. In most cases, the material is located in the Canberra office of the National Archives, but where it is not, its location is noted in the guide. The National Archives series described in this guide are listed on the National Archives' RecordSearch database, available on the National Archives website and in each of its reading rooms. Requests to view records may be lodged in the relevant reading room or via email. It should be noted, however, that many records referred to in this guide are held in special preservation storage and access to them must be arranged at least 10 days in advance.

It is now possible for remote researchers to request that a digital copy of a record be placed on the RecordSearch database.

Some material in the collection, including photographs, may depict Indigenous people and localities. Where such records include material that is considered to be of culturally significant activities, objects or sites, the records may be restricted. Some names of Indigenous people may also be restricted.

Citing the records

The correct citation of archival records in the National Archives is important both when requesting the records and when referring to them in written or published works. Using proper citations will not only help staff to locate records more readily, but will help other researchers to find that material.

The correct form of citation for records held by the National Archives of Australia is expressed as follows: The name 'National Archives of Australia' followed by a colon, the series number followed by a comma, and then the item number. An example is:

National Archives of Australia: A1336, 58582

It is essential to include the item title when a particular document from within a file is being cited, in which case the expanded information is separated from the title by a semi-colon:

NAA: A1336, 58582, How much is that blonde in the window?; unpublished score and lyric.

The name 'National Archives of Australia' may be abbreviated to 'NAA' provided the full name has been used in the first citation.


Viewing the records at any office of the National Archives is free, but charges apply for copying items and photographs. For a list of these charges, please refer to Fact Sheet 51 and Archives Advice 22, both of which can be viewed online at An order form for obtaining images is available at collection/using/order/index.

Locating additional information

Additional information about the copyright collection can be located by searching on RecordSearch. A bibliography and a list of organisations that supply information about copyright can be found in appendixes 1 and 2.

Researchers interested in literary and artistic copyright may be disappointed to learn that copies of some works detailed in the application and registration records held by the Archives no longer exist. This is more likely to be the case where the work was expensive to create and, having been sighted by the Registrar, was returned to the applicant. From the first colonial legislation, applicants were required to deposit a copy of their publication with each colony's principal library. Penalties applied to those who failed to do this. In the case of artistic registrations, therefore, depending on the nature of the work, it may be possible to locate copies of it within publications, in manuscript or personal collections in State public libraries and art galleries, or in private collections in other institutions.


Chapter notes | All notes

1 Lahore, Intellectual Property Law in Australia: Copyright, Butterworths, Sydney, 1977, pp. 21–23.

2 Lahore, pp. 27–29

3 In the period covering records in this guide, conventions were held at Berne (1886), Paris (1896), Berlin (1908), Berne (1914), Rome (1928) and Stockholm (1967).

4 Lahore, p. 413. Australia became a member of the Berne Union in its own right on 14 April 1928, and became a party to the Universal Copyright Convention on 1 May 1969 (Lahore, p. 366).

5 ibid., p. 414.

6 The Copyright Act 1968 was proclaimed on 27 June 1968 and commenced on 1 May 1969.

7 NAA: AP476/7, 1356/1906, The Copyright Act 1905, clause 6.

8 NAA: A1336, 13061, Listen to This, applicant, Jack Moses; and A1336, 19695, The Jerry Builders, applicant, Leenert Randolph Spaander.