It’s a good idea for writers to emerge from the garret every so often and take a good hard look around. In Australia, it’s not just a good idea, it’s a survival strategy. At the moment, our government is tinkering with copyright laws and importation rules. What’s at stake is the future of publishing in this country, the opportunities for emerging Australian literary talent, and the Australian identity itself.
In a nutshell, the Productivity Commission seeks to rejiggy three things:
- Shortening the term of copyright.
- Jettisoning “fair dealing” and adapting “fair use” instead.
- Abandoning parallel importation rules, and allowing bulk buying of materials published elsewhere.
This trifecta is ill-conceived and deadly. If it’s not stopped, the effects could drastically diminish the earnings of Australian writers, reduce the opportunities for young and new writers, and undermine the publishing industry. If you don’t believe me (and why should you without checking), visit the website of the Australian Society of Authors (ASA), a peak organisation that represents authors and publishers, to see what they say.
Australian Identity at Stake
It doesn’t stop with financial hardship for creators. By disregarding (not protecting) Australian literature and publishing, the Australian identity takes another blow. Instead of reading books that project the unique and precious Aussie voice and spirit, our citizens—young and old—will have to ingest still more American culture.
I say this as a dual-national with no disrespect intended to my American readers. Every American book, TV show, song, clip, and movie chips away at the very things that make Australia special. As water carves stone, this cultural tide slowly wears away our Aussiness.
It’s important for our children to read Aussie books about the history of our Aboriginal ancestors of 20,000 years ago. Our kids should delight in stories about brolgas and spotted quolls, pademelons and quokkas. These creatures are (sadly) unlikely to make their way into American picture books. Australian school kids need stories about the tuckshop queue not the cafeteria line. Ya know?
When I arrived in Australia nearly three decades ago, I met Aussies with accents so broad I needed an interpreter. People said delightful things like “crikey” and “dunny” and “dinky di”. My husband introduced me as his “cheese and kisses” (missus). Colourful Aussie-isms seasoned people’s everyday speech. These days, lots of Aussies (especially city folks) cringe at these sayings, and I think that’s a pity. Sadly, Steve Irwin, bless him, was the last bastion of ‘Strine.
But I digress…
Time to Use Your Words
To my Aussie writer-friends and their friends, family, and partners, I urge you to use your words at this time. Write to your member of Parliament and tell him or her the Productivity Commission’s proposal will have a seriously negative effect on writers’ livelihoods and the Australian identity.
I’m sharing (below) the letter I wrote to my MP. Please feel free to copy it to send to your member (after you’ve satisfied yourself that I’ve got my facts right). If you don’t like my letter, the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) has another.
And please share this post and other articles (like this one by Thomas Keneally) in your social media. Those who truly love us will forgive us for a few weeks of spam about the UnProductivity Committee’s unfair and ill-conceived proposal.
I am writing to you to express my grave concerns about the Productivity Commission’s proposed changes to copyright laws in Australia. As an author of children’s literature, a freelance writer, and an active member of the writing profession and community, I fear that the proposed changes will seriously reduce opportunities for new Australian talent to emerge and drastically affect my ability to earn a living from my writing now and later in life.
The Productivity Committee’s proposes to change the current copyright laws from 70 years after the death of the creator to 15-25 years after the creation of a work. The creation of a book can require years. This investment in a work is done with the hope that it will generate income for decades to come. Narrowing the earning window would reduce authors’ earnings now and deprive them of a livelihood in their latter years.
To put this in perspective, Jackie French, the 2014-2015 Australian Children’s Literature Laureate, wrote Diary of a Wombat fifteen years ago. The proposed changes mean that she will stop receiving exclusive earnings on her work. Someone else—someone who didn’t imagine the story, who didn’t toil over the words for months, who didn’t invest time and money into honing the craft and creating the opportunity—will earn from her creation. This is decidedly wrong. Clearly, she and her family alone deserve to earn from it for the term of her life and beyond.
Writers, like all Australians, have the right to establish a secure financial future for themselves and their families by retaining ownership of the intellectual property they have created. As it is with bricks and mortar, so it must be with the intellectual property of authors and other creatives. We don’t pour our lifeblood into building a house or business, only to give up ownership of it after a decade and a half. Imagine squatters moving in on the fifteenth anniversary of a home. This is what the Productivity Commission’s proposal amounts to for authors.
Similarly, the notion of “fair use” is categorically unfair. If the Productivity Commission’s changes are taken up, Australian authors’ income will suffer dramatically. When similar rules were changed in Canada, the cost to writers and the publishing industry was calculated to be in the area of $30 million since 2012.
Australian law sets out a series of clear exceptions to copyright restrictions known as “fair dealing“, as I’m sure you’re aware. What we have now is fair, a small fee paid to publishers and authors to allow for copying sections of their work without seeking permission. These payments, though small, mean so much to Australian authors, whose incomes average about $13,000 per year.
And finally, a change to parallel importation rules is unnecessary and unhelpful. If the current rules are abandoned, booksellers will be able to buy bulk from anywhere in the world, which will undermine the Australian publishing industry, as it has in New Zealand. Cheap imports are likely to contain American spelling, grammar and content, thrusting the Australian voice and culture still further into the background.
The Australian book industry is flourishing, producing 7000 new books a year and generating around $2 billion in revenue. This productivity is the result of the current rules, which help publishers manage risk and support the discovery of new Australian stories and talent.
Further information from reliable sources about how these changes would affect Australia’s books and authors can be found on the following links:
I urge you to reject the Productivity Commission’s proposed changes to copyright law. By doing so, you will be supporting our Australian writers and publishers, who through their craft shape, promote, and preserve Australian identity and culture.
In the Interest of Balance…
…I include this link to the argument in favour of the Productivity Commission’s proposals. Read it, by all means, noting that they are keen to generate American-style competition here in Australia, a country with a market that is a fraction of the size of the US’s. It didn’t happen in New Zealand or Canada. Just sayin’…