Our Endangered Ecosystem

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Self-portrait in Despair, Courbet, 1844-45


Jeanette Winterson spoke for many authors at the recent Australian Book Industry Awards when she said:

What we’re really protecting is the life of the mind; the creative core of what we are. If you attack creativity what you’re saying is that it doesn’t matter that we’re human beings, because very human being ever born across this planet, across time, is part of the creative continuum. We’re protecting something which is so valuable. This is more than an industry. This is the heart of humanity ... We need to protect this ecosystem.  

Jeanette Winterson,  Australian Book Industry Awards,  2016

At the Australian Book Industry Awards last Thursday (19 May), Jeanette Winterston made an impassioned plea on the behalf of Australian writers and readers and everyone involved in the Australian book industry.  She urged us to fight the Productivity Commissions Draft Report on Intellectual Property ‘with every breath.’


The Productivity Commission has recommended the free import of books, the free use of copyright material under, new ‘fair use’ rules, a legislated guarantee that consumers have the right to beat internet geoblockers and much tighter restrictions on granting the use of patents, under reforms it says could save consumers up to $1 billion a year. We who make up the Australian arts community are under attack from the Liberal National Party lead by the Malcolm Turnbull Government who have blatantly chosen economics over nurturing Australian culture.

As other commentators, including Thomas Keneally, Jackie French and Richard Flanagan, to name only a few of the many authors who have condemned the report on public forums, have stated, the very heart of these recommendations prohibits innovation and annihilates the incentive to produce Australian work by Australian creators. It affects all art forms but most especially book publishing.

Parallel Importation Restrictions (PIR) allow Australian publishers to currently have 30 days to establish their copyright for a particular book by making it available in Australia. It also restricts overseas companies from dumping cheap editions of Australian generated works into our market.

15 years ago I published a number of lavish non-fiction picture books, mostly set on the Great Barrier Reef. To make publication viable we needed co-publishing partners to share production costs. We sold the US rights to a small independent publisher who made substantive content and design changes to suit the US market.

These editions were way inferior to our edition. The text content was dumbed down and made prescriptive while the design changes diminished the impact of the magnificent illustrations. The US edition dictated a prescribed text, basically telling the reader what to think, while the Australian text allowed inquiry, interpretation and imagination.  Much to our surprise we discovered a number of large Australian retail outlets selling the US edition directly to schools and institutions. The market then for this type of picture book was approximately 3,000 copies and we know that at least 500 to 800 copies of the overseas edition were sold here. A large chunk of our market.

Neither the publisher nor the author received any payment for these editions as they were sold at over 75% discount to the outlets. We could not compete with our own book. Thanks to PIR we were able to stop this happening and survive to produce more beautiful and original books for Australian young readers.

It is a fallacy to believe prices will drop if with do away with PIR. This has been proven by the NZ market which has removed PIR and discovered that NZ titles sold fell by 35%. In the same time Australia book prices have fallen by 25% since 2008 due our highly competitive and ever changing publishing industry.

Territorial copyright is not a subsidy to the Australian book industry but a right which is recognised by virtually every country worldwide. If we don’t support our copyright then we will once again be the colonial dumping ground for the UK and the US. They certainly will not be changing their copyright laws to allow us to dump our books into their markets.

The introduction of the US style ‘fair use’ on copyright material sends shivers up my spine. It’s basically implying that we might as well just allow all our hard intellectual work to be freely available to anyone who wants to use substantial amounts of information for their own gain which is Canada’s experience. Schools and tertiary institutions can now freely download whatever they want without payment to the creators of the content. This has caused many Canadian academic publishers have left this market. 

Changing copyright to 20 to 25 years after publication is ludicrous. A book is years of work and its concepts belong to those who created them. Maintaining a lifetime plus 70 years is fair and reasonable The recommendation the Productivity Commission has put forward championing the reduction of copyright will probably not get very far as Australia has too many bilateral agreements with countries who have the same laws. However, its very inclusion in the draft report demonstrates a total lack of understanding of artistic intellectual property and reveals the crass economic bias of the commission.

Most authors earn less than $12,000 and many far less than this. Even our top Australian writers – those who are recognised internationally as our cultural ambassadors – struggle to balance the work needed to survive with the time required for writing. These PIR recommendations will limit even more of the outlets authors have to earn income from their work.

The arguments for these changes follow this government’s love of economic rationalism. But how do you economically rationalise the unique Australian version of creativity, imagination, experimentation and culture? You don’t – you make it matter.

The members working on the PIR Commission are not writers and artists. They are people who are concerned with figures on a spreadsheet, rather than the promotion of art and literature. It is time to fight back for the life of the mind.

On 2 July vote for someone who cares about books and copyright - fight for it with every breath.   Fight for humanity. Because human beings do matter!

You can also join the ASA campaign, sign petitions and make your individual voice heard. Australian art and culture matters. Help us protect this endangered species.

Further reading:

At Radio National.

Kim Williams on copyright.

Copyright for the 21st Century.







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