Book copyright debate ignores the future

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Iliad Discussion of territorial copyright for authors and book publishers is heated and emotive. Tim Wilson of the Institute of Public Affairs writes that it's all about greedy authors protecting their turf, while The Age's editorial writer says it represents the abandonment of the guardians of our literary culture.

The debate surrounds last week's Productivity Commission recommendations for the removal of parallel import restrictions. The restrictions currently in place are said to allow local writers, publishers, and small book shops to earn a living in exchange for higher book prices for the public. The proposed change could reverse this situation.

Both sides have a point, but the argument itself may be irrelevant.

Like newspapers, it's certain that books will move from print to an electronic form within the next 20 years. Rupert Murdoch told the Fox Business Network earlier this year that newspapers will be converting relatively soon:

'I think it's two or three years away before they get introduced in a big way and then it will probably take 10 years or 15 years for the public to swing over.'

Books will not be far behind.

There will only be a future for authors, publishers and booksellers who embrace the new medium. In the United States, Amazon is focused on the uptake of its Kindle e-book reading technology. In Australia, Dymocks is testing the market with a European device called the Iliad (pictured), together with an increasing range of e-book titles in its catalogue.

Writers are also taking up the challenge to experiment. The formula for success is uncertain, and aspiring US author Matt Stewart is using Twitter to serialise his novel in 140 character installments.

The point is that Australian writers and publishers would do better to focus their efforts on making the future rather than preserving the past.

The Federal Government will soon decide whether to accept or reject the Productivity Commission recommendations. However whatever legislation is put or left in place could be largely irrelevant in as little as five years time. The experience of the music industry has shown that copyright provisions do not readily transfer from traditional forms of production and distribution, to the internet.

New rules will be necessary because things are done differently online. This is where Australia's writers, publishers and booksellers should be.


Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

 

Topic tags: michael mullins, Productivity Commission, territorial copyright for books, Matt Stewart, twitter


 

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Existing comments

I managed a small academic bookshop back in 1971. At that time the abolition of retail price maintenance (RPM) was being proposed - retailers could sell at whatever price they chose - and recommended retail price (RRP) would come in.

I remember the uproar: "The sky will fall!" summarises it. Supermarkets were getting into selling books cheaper. But the specialist bookshops who survived were those with personality, with staff who read the books in stock, and were even encouraged to read the books, with staff who did more than just "push product".

Now we have A & R and Dymocks stores not even having bothering (it's "the bother and imagination factor") to have a special display when Terry Pratchett was knighted. They're into pushing product, with interfering "Can I help you?" and "This is very popular" rather than really appreciating books. And "literary books" sections - how do you decide what goes into such snobbish categories?

Another issue from the 1970s. The world was carved up between British and US interests. If an author was "British" and the British publisher did not publish - stiff! Ditto for being "US". Has this problem been addressed?
Frank Bremner | 21 July 2009


I hope when ebooks replace the ones I buy now that cheap broadband will be available for all. What will those outside the big centres do otherwise? Even though I live just outside the metro area of Melbourne I have to have wireless to get broadband, & from the only provider in range; it is very expensive. If however I lived on, say the West Coast of Eyre Peninsular as I once did I would have to have satellite broadband which is super expensive even with a government subsidy. When oh when will people remember that not everyone lives in areas with broadband cover.
Rosemary West | 25 July 2009


But you're forgetting that even digital content has rights restrictions built in. Look at iTunes and the Kindle itself.

Abandoning the PIRs is opening up the Australian market to foreign publishers without any reciprocal arrangement in ANY other major English-language market. Australian publishers will be swamped and new Australian authors will be denied an audience because the 'sociopaths in suits' (to borrow a phrase) decided that an open market is more important than cultural integrity. We don't see the UK or US abandoning their territorial copyright provisions do we?

This will not lead to cheaper books but it will lead to less Australian produced content and the loss of many jobs in the Australian publishing industry.
Joe Ennis | 25 July 2009


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