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Thursday, June 02, 2016

Copyright. Australia's leading authors are wrong

Australia's leading authors are wrong.

Richard Flanagan won the Man Booker Prize. Addressing last month's Book Industry Awards, he said the Turnbull government was considering cutting the copyright term, "so Mem Fox has no rights in Possum Magic, Stephanie Alexander has no rights in A Cook's Companion".

"This is a government that has no respect for us and no respect for what we do," he thundered. "If you care at all about books, don't vote Liberal."

Tom Keneally won the Booker for the painstaking research involved in Schindler's Ark. He told the ceremony the government was proposing "something neither the Brits nor Americans propose to do to their writers: to slice Australian authors' copyright to 15 to 25 years".

Magda Szubanski won book of the year and said she was thinking of leaving the country. Jackie French wrote an open letter on HarperCollins letterhead saying she had always assumed the royalties from her books would support her husband and herself in their old age.

None of these living national treasures appears to have read through the report about which they complained.

The draft Productivity Commission report on intellectual property includes just five recommendations on copyright, none of which would cut its length.

Australia can't cut its copyright term. It is bound by the treaties it has signed with the United States, Singapore and Korea, and will also be bound by the Trans-Pacific Partnership should it be ratified. It is true that the Productivity Commission would have very much liked to recommend a shorter copyright term, and said so. But it also said plainly that wasn't an option open to any government, Labor or Liberal.

What the commission does recommend, and what might be really behind the confused cries of our leading authors and the publishers who feed them lines, is an opening up of the market for books.

Most of us hate geoblocks, the annoying restrictions that prevent us from using in one country a DVD made for another, or force Australians to choose from a smaller or more expensive range of products when buying online.

The commission wants the government to state clearly that it is perfectly legal to attempt to circumvent geoblocking, and it wants it to avoid signing agreements that would make it illegal. And it goes further. It says the laws that prevent Australian booksellers from buying books from overseas suppliers are no more than "an analogue equivalent of geoblocking".

You and I can already buy books from overseas. Asked at a Sydney Writers Festival event last month how many present had bought from Amazon, almost everyone in the room put up their hands. Bookshops are able to buy from overseas too, as long as it's one book at a time. Attempts to buy in bulk – attempts to buy American books at American prices – are outlawed unless they are done through or with the permission of the Australian licence holders.

It's enforced through the Copyright Act, even though the restrictions on so-called parallel imports are nothing to do with copyright. The licence holders divide the world into zones which can't compete with each other, like they used to do with records and CDs. If the legal framework allowing them to do so was removed, booksellers such as Dymocks would be able to threaten to buy from overseas if the Australian price wasn't good enough. Deloitte Access Economics says if they could, as they can in New Zealand, Australian prices could be 10 per cent lower.

It's easy to see how the system we've got benefits Australian distributors and foreign authors, harder to see how it benefits our own.

One concern is that without substantial profits on foreign books the Australian distributors wouldn't be able to invest in local talent (an argument the Productivity Commission deals with by saying it would be cheaper and more certain to support Australian authors directly). Another is that Australian books are heavily discounted overseas. Some are in bargain bins. Their fear is that if Australians weren't overcharged relative to, say, Canadians, Australian books would never be published.

But websites such as Amazon are already eating away at that overcharging, and destroying bookshops in the process.

After seven reports recommending the free import of books the government said yes in November. It asked the Productivity Commission to advise on how to do it. The commission wants the restrictions gone by December 2017.

This isn't because the commission members are philistines or have a "perverted world view", as Flanagan puts it. The head of the inquiry, Karen Chester, says she comes from a family of hard-copy bookworms. For years she was among the biggest buyers of books at her local bookstore. She is on the side of consumers, and on the side of bookstores, believing that if they are able to compete on a level footing with websites they might just survive.

The worst outcome for consumers would that Labor backed Flanagan and Keneally and Szubanski and won the election. We'd keep paying much more for our books or drift away and move online.

The commission's report deals with much more than imports. Submissions close on Friday. Access to books is too important a question to leave to authors.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald