The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

COPY­RIGHT tells the whole story of our thriv­ing lit­er­ary cul­ture. Without it there would be no recog­nis­able book trade, roy­al­ties for writ­ers or in­vest­ment in the skills of pub­lish­ing: ed­i­to­rial, rights, de­sign, pro­duc­tion, mar­ket­ing, pub­lic­ity.

Copy­right, li­censed ter­ri­to­ri­ally, al­lows writ­ers to au­tho­rise edi­tions by coun­try or lan­guage. It al­lows book­sellers to form a fair mar­ket­place. When you buy a new Aus­tralian book in a lo­cal edi­tion you are con­tribut­ing to a high do­mes­tic royalty for the writer. The US, Bri­tain and Canada use sim­i­lar rules to re­ward writ­ers.

Our rules are clev­erer than theirs. If a book is not avail­able here within 30 days of its pub­li­ca­tion over­seas, the book­seller is free to par­al­lel im­port it, to ig­nore ter­ri­to­rial copy­right. This prin­ci­ple of use it or lose it forces pub­lish­ers to make for­eign books avail­able promptly. It guar­an­tees an Aus­tralian ter­ri­tory for Aus­tralian writ­ers be­cause we pub­lish first. It stops roy­al­tyfree for­eign edi­tions of Aus­tralian books be­ing dumped here.

The 30-day rule, the sub­ject of an in­quiry by the Pro­duc­tiv­ity Com­mis­sion, is the most ef­fi­cient and creative ter­ri­to­rial regime in the world. It truly bal­ances the de­mands of com­merce and cul­ture, the rights of creators and con­sumers. Since it was in­tro­duced in 1991 our in­dus­try has di­ver­si­fied and flour­ished. We have more au­thors, more pub­lish­ers, more book­sellers, more books and a greater mar­ket share for Aus­tralian books.

The rule gives flex­i­bil­ity to book­sellers that no book­seller has in Bri­tain, the US or Canada, while giv­ing pub­lish­ers in­cen­tive to in­vest. Book­sellers are free to im­port any edi­tion at any time on cus­tomer re­quest. We are con­se­quently the only English-speak­ing coun­try with a dy­namic and grow­ing in­de­pen­dent sec­tor.

This is a mar­vel­lous de­vel­op­ment. In­de­pen­dents have 20 per cent of the mar­ket and play an ir­re­place­able role in the pro­mo­tion of Aus­tralian books, which con­sti­tute 60 per cent of all books sold. They are com­mu­nity hubs, the souls of our re­tail neigh­bour­hoods. They would feel the chill wind of a to­tally dereg­u­lated book mar­ket.

Our book­sellers are an­noyed about the ef­fect of on­line sales. Read­ers who use the in­ter­net to buy books from a for­eign re­tailer don’t pay GST. Yet a book­seller plac­ing an or­der with a for­eign whole­saler does. Work that out.

The 30-day rule keeps our book print­ing in­dus­try alive. It al­lows our two main print­ers — McPher­son’s and Grif­fin Press — to man­u­fac­ture books that would oth­er­wise be im­ported. This work earns tens of mil­lions of dol­lars and cre­ates skilled jobs. It helps keep prices low, which en­cour­ages pub­lish­ers to take risks with new au­thors. Close to 50 per cent of Grif­fin’s busi­ness is im­port re­place­ment. Without the 30-day rule one of th­ese print­ers will al­most cer­tainly fail and trig­ger a domino ef­fect in the book in­dus­try.

The rule also al­lows pub­lish­ers to cham­pion our writ­ers abroad. Most best-sell­ing writ­ers in this coun­try are pub­lished in­ter­na­tion­ally, where some are best­sellers, too. The New York Times just put a whop­ping seven ti­tles by Aus­tralian au­thors on its an­nual list of 100 no­table books. A se­cure ter­ri­tory lets us ne­go­ti­ate on an equal ba­sis. At Text Pub­lish­ing, for in­stance, we earn more than 20 per cent of our rev­enue by ex­port­ing rights. Two in ev­ery three dol­lars we pay our writ­ers is earned from abroad. This money buys them writ­ing time. Our com­pany is a net ex­porter of copy­right.

Without ter­ri­to­rial copy­right you end up with a ver­sion of Work Choices for writ­ers, an ero­sion of their con­trac­tual rights in the mar­ket. Ter­ri­to­rial copy­right guar­an­tees a fair go. US edi­tions of books by our writ­ers of­ten change hun­dreds of words: side­walk for foot­path, flipflop for thong, that kind of thing. Do we re­ally want our chil­dren read­ing th­ese edi­tions?

La­bor has en­dorsed the present regime since the Hawke-Keat­ing gov­ern­ment im­ple­mented it. Its na­tional plat­form sup­ports copy­right. When the Howard gov­ern­ment wanted un­qual­i­fied dereg­u­la­tion of books a few years ago, La­bor was op­posed: Kevin Rudd, Ju­lia Gil­lard, Robert McClel­land, Lind­say Tan­ner and Wayne Swan all voted against the Howard leg­is­la­tion. A key is­sue is price. Books re­main a cheap form of en­ter­tain­ment. A $ 22.95 ( in­clud­ing GST) pa­per­back novel pro­vides hours and hours of in­tel­lec­tual and imag­i­na­tive re­ward. It can be read many times, lent to friends and fam­ily, and resold. Low prices in a fair mar­ket are a good thing. They en­cour­age read­ing.

Dur­ing the past decade the Aus­tralian dol­lar, on av­er­age, has been worth roughly US69c and 40 Bri­tish pence. At those rates, ex­clud­ing GST, many best-sell­ing ti­tles such as Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief ($ 18.14) or The Spare Room by He­len Gar­ner ($ 27.23, we pub­lish it at Text) are cheaper than com­pa­ra­ble edi­tions in the US and Bri­tain, or about the same price.

How will abol­ish­ing ter­ri­to­rial copy­right bring down prices, un­less we want to be­come a mar­ket dis­torted by low roy­al­ties and dump­ing?

The Pro­duc­tiv­ity Com­mis­sion has pro­duced an is­sues pa­per that grap­ples with some of th­ese prob­lems. It asks whether gov­ern­ment fund­ing could pro­vide the same ben­e­fits as the present rules if we were to aban­don ter­ri­to­rial copy­right. This is a bizarre ac­knowl­edg­ment of a train wreck in the mak­ing. The cul­tural value of books de­pends in part on the ab­sence of gov­ern­ment fund­ing. Free speech in a democ­racy in­heres in a free pub­lish­ing in­dus­try no less than a free me­dia.

Imag­ine the drain on the tax­payer if ter­ri­to­rial copy­right were abol­ished. To­tal de­vel­op­ment grants for writ­ers and writ­ing are less than $ 5 mil­lion an­nu­ally. At Text, gov­ern­ment as­sis­tance is much less than 1 per cent of our rev­enue, and we are small. Pub­lish­ing is a $ 1.5 bil­lion in­dus­try, big­ger than film and recorded mu­sic com­bined. Writ­ers, agents, pub­lish­ers, print­ers and many in­de­pen­dent book­sellers would end up on the pub­lic drip.

What kind of pol­icy dis­ables a con­fi­dent in­dus­try so the tax­payer must pro­vide per­ma­nent life sup­port? We should recog­nise the 30-day rule for the suc­cess it is and start plan­ning for a fu­ture in this in­dus­try that builds on the gains we have made.

Mean­time, the Pro­duc­tiv­ity Com­mis­sion has de­cided to ig­nore the im­por­ta­tion ar­range­ment that re­ally hurts book­sellers and pub­lish­ers. GST-free on­line sales may be 10 per cent of the to­tal trade. If so, a quar­ter of im­ported books evade tax. Why does Ama­zon have priv­i­leges de­nied to our book­sellers who work tire­lessly to sell Aus­tralian books? Some US states com­pel Ama­zon to charge sales tax. The Pro­duc­tiv­ity Com­mis­sion has put its head in the sand on this is­sue but it is a big prob­lem. Mak­ing the GST rules fair for book im­porters is a long-over­due re­form in the na­tional in­ter­est. Michael Hey­ward is the manag­ing di­rec­tor of Text Pub­lish­ing.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Paul New­man

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