Copyright records: Archives of the imagination

Author: Merilyn Minell

Background to the copyright collection

From 1854 until 1968 anyone who wished to protect their creative endeavours under copyright could register their work by completing a registration form and submitting it, along with a copy of the work, to the Registrar of Copyrights. Each registration was recorded in a large register and given a number, and the work itself was filed.

Until 1907, copyright was registered in the each colony, except in Tasmania which did not have copyright legislation. After 1907, it was registered with the Commonwealth government. When Commonwealth legislation superseded the Colonial Acts, early registrations were still within copyright, so all the documentation passed to the Commonwealth. As a result of these registrations, the National Archives now holds a wonderfully eclectic archive of Australian social history, containing copies of everything from well-known paintings by famous artists and stills from early Hollywood films to early brochures for weight-loss programs and models of sculptures – and everything in between.

Whether you are searching for genealogical information or studying the career of a painter, photographer, artist, theatrical entrepreneur or playwright, you will find a variety of information if you delve into this archive. The most delightful aspect of this archive is the ‘exhibits’ (the copies of the works submitted at registration).

These are the direct evidence of the creative work of Australia’s early artists and musicians: a manuscript for a play or a book of poetry, printed sheet music trumpeting the fact that the song was a ‘tremendous success’ for the singer, a plaster model of a sculpture and so on. You can view these items in our Reading Room and possibly even hold an object created by your ancestor.

Fleshing out ancestors' lives

If you are looking to flesh out the lives of your family, there are other sources within this collection that might help you. You can look at the photographs of places and events. Do you have a diary that records a visit to the theatre? That production might be reviewed in one of the many theatrical journals in the Archives collection and you will be able to see what stylish women were wearing from the fashion pages in these and other publications. You might have an ancestor who was a cook in a large private home and want to know the wages and conditions of household servants and how advertisements for them were worded, or the sorts of things they could have purchased or made. You will find the exhibit material in this collection most helpful.

If shorthand is the bane of your existence, have a look at the many different systems developed by eager transcribers. Or find ideas for your next spy thriller in the old code books. Early street directories show not only the name and address of each occupant, but also their occupation so you might be able to recreate an entire neighbourhood.

Not all the exhibits have survived to come into the collection, but even when this is the case, there is a wealth of documentation to pore over. There are details of the person registering the work: their address at the time; the date they created or published the work; or in the case of theatrical pieces, the date and place of first performance. Sometimes there is associated correspondence which adds to the picture of the people involved. This correspondence can include letters outlining a person's credentials, documents transferring ownership of all or part of the copyright, wills and documentation of business transfers.

For anyone researching a career or the works of an artist, this collection is extremely valuable in providing dates when works were created or first exhibited. One keen researcher, Alan Tierney of Goulburn, has already published a booklet detailing the works of the photographer Melvin Vaniman, entitled Dating of photographs and other fine arts: copyright registration records in Australia up to 1968 as a research source.

Documents often contain the signatures of several people. I found my grandfather-in-law had witnessed the signature of the artist William Stuart Reid when he completed a registration form to protect his painting Phar Lap (J Pike up) in 1931. You can see this documentation, and a copy of the exquisite sketch Reid submitted, under the reference A1861, 6207 in RecordSearch. This find was, of course, pure luck. It is impossible to actually search for the signature of a witness, but there are registers which enable you to search for details of applicants, creators and the titles of the works they created. The applicants and creators of the main Commonwealth literary applications are all itemised on our RecordSearch database.

More information

To find out more about the copyright collection and what it comprises, look at:

Don't forget patents, trademarks and designs as a source of inventive thought – we have those registrations too. You might be surprised by the creative spirits lurking in your family tree!

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019