Copyright and History in the Making

As editors, we often find ourselves scrambling to solve copyright problems just before we publish each issue. When the dust settles, we often think that the problems could have been avoided if we had thought about copyright earlier on. This post is about some of the copyright issues we and our authors might have to consider.

Copyright is the right to do certain things with creative material. For example, the copyright owner might be the only person with the right to copy, adapt or reproduce a creative work. Although copyright is a form of property (or ‘intellectual property’), it’s not the same as owning an object. For example, it is very common for one person to own a book, but another person to own the copyright in the book: this is what happens when you own your textbooks, but the authors own the copyright in those textbooks.

To make matters more complicated, copyright rules vary between different types of work: so photographs, musical works, literary works, and published editions can all be dealt with differently in different circumstances. These differences make it very important to carefully consider the specific rules for the material you’re working with.

We often encounter copyright issues in relation to images and photographs. The photograph in question may have been shared widely: it may be found in archives, newspapers, or the subject’s descendant’s records. While a written document will often be dated and the author identified by name, there may be no easy way to identify a photographer from their photographs alone. And most importantly, owning a copy of the photograph is not always the same as owning the copyright in the photograph. If the person who owns the photograph does not own the copyright in the photograph, he or she cannot authorise the editors to publish it. Photographs are probably the most problematic type of copyrighted material that the editors encounter.

If you want to use an image in your article, consider the copyright issues early on. If the image is a key piece of evidence, it can be very difficult to re-write the article to omit that evidence if we cannot publish the image. You should think about who created the image or took the photograph, the year it was published, the publication in which it appeared, and the terms on which you were given access to the image. If you found the image in an archive, you also need to think about what the archive has permitted you to do with the image.

If the worst happens, and we cannot publish the image, there may be other options. Because our journal is published online, it is easy to link to the image if it is freely available on the internet. While readers of print journals may not always type a URL into their browser, readers of History in the Making can easily follow links in the footnotes.

Remember, there are free online resources to help you through your copyright problems. The Australian Copyright Council has a wide range of comprehensive factsheets (, as does the Arts Law Centre of Australia (

– Matthew Varley (Treasurer, History In The Making)

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