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‘Public Rights’ in Copyright: What Makes Up Australia's Public Domain?

Australian Intellectual Property Journal, (2013) 23 AIPJ 111-138

UNSW Law Research Paper No. 2013-9

36 Pages Posted: 7 Feb 2013  

Graham Greenleaf

University of New South Wales, Faculty of Law

Catherine Bond

University of New South Wales

Date Written: January 23, 2013


Previous studies have advocated a broader approach to the copyright public domain, but have rarely attempted to define this broader notion, or to enumerate what it would cover. Starting from previous attempts to define or categorise the copyright public domain, by Deazley, Dusollier and by Samuelson, this article proposes a definition of the copyright public domain.

We define the ‘public domain’, in relation to copyright, to be the ability of members of the public (including a significant class of the public, or intermediaries acting for their benefit) to use works, to do so on the same terms including costs (if any) as other members of the public, and where any licence is automatically available and on terms set by a neutral party. More briefly, we can describe the public domain in copyright as ‘The public’s ability to use works without seeking permission and on equal terms.’ The substance of the definition is therefore consistent with those of Deazley, Litman, Lessig, Boyle and others, but it is more precise. It is a definition which is neutral on the question of whether the public domain is comprised of various ‘rights’, or of something else.

We then examines how the definition can be used to justify a set of categories of ‘public rights’ that are sufficient to describe the copyright public domain in the Australian legal jurisdiction. We argue that there are fifteen such categories, which can be described briefly as:

Works failing minimum requirements
Works impliedly excluded
Works expressly excluded
Constitutional exclusions
Copyright has expired
‘Public domain dedications’
Public policy refusals
Public interest exceptions
Insubstantial parts
Mere facts, ideas etc
Uses outside exclusive rights
Statutory exceptions
Neutral collective licensing
Neutral voluntary licensing
De facto public domain of benign uses

We argue that these categories fit the proposed definition and, are congruent with our intuitions of what a broader and more modern notion of the public domain should contain. We explain these categories at a conceptual level, justifying them against the proposed definition, and in terms of the positive contributions they make to the idea of the public domain. A brief explanation is given of where each category fits in Australian copyright law, but without the detailed discussion of Australian law that a full explanation would require.

To what extent both the definitions, and the categories, will be useful in analysis of public domains other than Australia’s remains to be seen.

Keywords: copyright, public domain, commons, Australia

Suggested Citation

Greenleaf, Graham and Bond, Catherine, ‘Public Rights’ in Copyright: What Makes Up Australia's Public Domain? (January 23, 2013). Australian Intellectual Property Journal, (2013) 23 AIPJ 111-138; UNSW Law Research Paper No. 2013-9. Available at SSRN:

Graham Greenleaf (Contact Author)

University of New South Wales, Faculty of Law ( email )

Sydney, New South Wales 2052
+61 2 9385 2233 (Phone)
+61 2 9385 1175 (Fax)


Catherine Bond

University of New South Wales ( email )

Sydney NSW 2052

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