Copyright for Creatives - Graeme Austin

Story by Kirsty de Jong

Faculties of Law and Government and Victoria Business School, 2018


It would be fair to say there’s a general shamelessness about illegally downloading films, television series and music from the internet. The fact that nationwide the internet comes to a grinding halt on the eve of a Game of Thrones premiere is evidence enough. Yet most people know nothing of the ramifications for the artists involved in creating and producing these forms of entertainment. Ease of access give us no reason, no pause to make a judgement call on what’s most important.

The Death of the Album

Artists’ identities and visions become redundant and dehumanised in a world where we are able to pick and choose and create what Graeme Austin, Lecturer and Chair of Private Law in the Faculty of Law, calls “a soundtrack for our own lives”. We can even listen to music made by artificial intelligence on Spotify. Provenance—or who the artist was— used to be the biggest consideration when it came to art; whether it was of the visual, audio or literary kind. But now the digitisation of creative work and the “disaggregation of creative legacies like albums into single computer files”, puts more distance between audiences and artists than ever before.

The Right to Create

Human rights and intellectual property as a field of teaching and research is Graeme’s realm of expertise. Its significance he attributes to the fact that when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was put forward in 1948, in the wake of the atrocities of WWII, there was a special provision for the ‘moral and material interests’ of the creative worker. In a post-war period where people were just getting used to being able to provide for their basic needs again, awareness of the need for creatives to self-realise still existed.

Artificial Scarcity

Graeme thinks the digital age has eclipsed this historical precedent for the right to earn a living from creative work. Ensuring the dignity for creative workers is the role of copyright, which is just one branch of intellectual property legislation. Copyright creates a market for creative work by establishing an artificial scarcity and restricts how creative work can be copied and distributed. In limiting access, or its supply, it creates demand and therefore a market for it. This is crucial for artists as it gives them access to a revenue stream independent of organisations who provide the type of funding and grants that come with conditions attached.


Digitisation has repositioned much of what we used to know as ‘art’ to ‘content’ which sounds remarkably less special and easier to take advantage of as a consumer, especially when digital platforms are so user-friendly and accessible to whatever ‘content’ our heart desires. Graeme questions whether people are even aware of “how it got there and who owns it”. This is the reason why Taylor Swift removed her music from Spotify in 2014.

Special Safe Harbours

Graeme was recently consulted regarding the New Zealand Government’s review of the Copyright Act and he released an opinion piece in early 2018 supporting bespoke safe harbours for the GLAM sector: galleries, libraries, archives and museums. Safe harbours provide shelter in the law for people doing “sufficiently important activities” that on paper read as a copyright infringement. This would register a huge, collective sigh of relief from those in the GLAM community who are trying to increase the accessibility of their collections by putting them online.

A Champion of the Arts

For Graeme, this kind of public service is a key aspect of his job, along with writing and teaching. From this position he is able to advocate for a safer, more pragmatic and fruitful legal environment for creative workers and the cultural sector in New Zealand.

Graeme's Office

55 Lambton Quay, Pipitea, Wellington 6011, New Zealand