Kathryn Hore - Writer

The work under copyright in the age of electronic reproduction…

…OR – this freakin’ copyright thing doesn’t make much sense when we’re on the internets, does it?

 It would be “cultural self-suicide”, according to a tautology-wielding Peter Carey.  The Productivity Commission – that independent research and advisory body with the brief, for good or ill, to “help governments make better policies in the long term interest of the Australian community” – thought otherwise.   

In the literary establishment v. economic rationalists grudge match of the year (two walk in, one walk out?  No?  Too far?), the debate over Australia’s Parallel Import Restrictions – you know, whether to retain Australian publishing’s territorial copyright and existing industry protections, or alternatively jemmy the market open to all comers – has been one of the more, well, emotive of 2009.  The Productivity Commission won the battle when it recommended PIR’s been removed entirely, but the war is far from over and current sounds out of cabinet suggest the situation might be leaning in favour of the publishing industry after all.  Everyone is now busy watching this space. 

Beyond our land girt by sea, other battles were shaping up into Big Copyright Moments.  The Google Book Settlement hit the ground running, after US authors and publishers took on the world’s biggest search engine and brokered a deal which came into play this year, the impact of which may well be felt around the world.  Google’s up for more than $125 million USD in payments to individual rights-holders of books already digitised under its Library Program, though the rights-holders in question have to go chasing it to get their cut.  In return, Google gets to sell online access, advertising rights and, best of all, keeps its massive mega-database of electronic literary copy.  Since 2004, the global search engine has been digitising its way through the Big Libraries of the World (well, of the US, mostly, such as Harvard University’s Library and the New York Public Library) and currently has more than seven million books in its digital stacks.

This three year copyright stoush between the publishing industry and the global information giant determined to create the world’s biggest online library has never been about the distribution or electronic publication of copyrighted works.  It is the digitisation and storage in Google’s databanks that rights-holders have objected to.  Google never planned to release copyrighted works out into the world; it wanted to provide a searchable database which would show less than a sentence of the material, and then provide a link to where the interested party could go legitimately purchase the tome. Indeed, some (okay, me) have previously argued that for authors in smaller regions and markets (like, um, Australia), getting the kind of global reach Google can offer is simply good marketing.  But that’s a debate still being waged.  Another copyright wait-and-see situation.

In other realms, meanwhile, J.K. Rowling won a battle against one of her own fans, who wanted to publish the book of his website – an encyclopaedic catalogue of the Harry Potter world.  In many ways, this was a case of hierarchy of format, a reminder of the significant value still placed upon the printed form.  It wasn’t the online fandom Rowling objected to, by all accounts she’d used the website herself, but when the chap behind it wanted to move it out of the realms of digital fanboy enthusiasm and turn it into a hard-bound, real-world, published encyclopaedia (and, not insignificantly, one that had the potential to earn serious cash), that crossed a significant line.  A website is one thing, but an actual printed, published book?  That was going too far.

In one way or another, the literary copyright battles of the year have all been about coping with a world gone digital.  Even the Australian market split over industry protections, with the publishers and writers on one side and the big book chains backing the Productivity Commission on the other, boils down to the issues created by a globalised world where, increasingly, traditional geographical boundaries no longer matter.  Copyright legislation is still based in a print world, as are the arguments and debates.  Books are too expensive here compared to overseas, say the Commission and the book retailers (who, incidentally, have had a horror half-decade themselves, what with Collins Booksellers struggling with administration a few years back and Angus & Robertson barely hanging on thanks to a dubious strategy of increasing market share by buying out Borders Australia.)  Opening up the market to global publishers able to dump cheap foreign editions in our wide brown land will threaten the very viability of Australian specific publishing and writing, say the publishers.

But while they’re fighting it out, consumers are increasingly buying their books online and by-passing the whole issue anyway.  The internet may not be the most significant sales channel for books yet, but it is thought to be the fastest growing, both here and overseas.  Market research from PubTrack estimates that in the UK the internet will be the major retail channel for books within three years and last year in the US internet sales outweighed all other book retail channels.  Here in Australia, some estimates put online books sales already at $100m annually, and growing.  The figures are rubbery, depending upon who is doing the talking, but there is one sure fact: online sales are increasingly significant and consumers buying online don’t think twice about the geographical territories being crossed when doing so. 

The digital world is already opening up the market, if haphazardly.  Indeed, 2009 might even be remembered as the year Amazon’s Kindle e-Book reader became available in Australia – though considering the Kindle itself is already looking uninspiring in Oz, what with Amazon trying to force serious discounts from publishers for inclusion of their work to the point where publisher’s don’t want to play anymore, it’s probably not going to be the e-book reader which takes Australia by storm.  Sony’s e-Reader has received some better reviews, and there’s talk from Kindle-competitors about finding ways for readers to swap e-books or share them with friends, or even just “borrow” e-Books from their local library.  That’s if the world’s publishers will agree to all this lending business (they haven’t yet).  But it’s the not-so-humble iPhone already making it’s way into everyone’s back pocket which offers a variety of e-book applications, complete with a large catalogue of e-books, which could just be the sleeper reader with the potential to really take-off.   The e-book is coming, one way or another, and books as downloadable files have the capacity to change everything. 

Now, it’s easy to be sceptical about the e-Book, but tell that to those who like listening to their music on vinyl.  And if there’s anything the music industry can teach the world’s book publishers, it’s that prohibitive digital rights which disallow consumers effective use of their own electronic purchases does the industry itself no favours.  The black market of piracy so prevalent in the music industry does not consist of organised crime operations skilfully flouting copyright so as to make illegal profit – it’s made up of everyday music lovers, those consumers who just want to easily access, listen, share, swap and enjoy the music they love.  No legal action, expensive copyright suit or “piracy is theft!” education campaign has ever been shown to decrease the amount of illegal copying online, but that hasn’t stopped the music industry trying.  Unfortunately, the only impact of the industry’s strict adherence to copyright legislation better suited to a non-digital era – not to mention their ‘sue everyone’ approach when it’s breached – is to criminalise its very own audience. 

The literary world of publishers and authors and booksellers and printers and everyone else in-between needs to adapt to the electronic era, rather than cling on to the old ways.  When the Statute of Anne was enacted in 1709 England to effectively become the world’s first copyright law, it was said to necessary for “the encouragement of learned men to compose and write useful books.”  In fact, the Statute of Anne was driven by the publishers who, needing to recoup their publishing costs and pay their authors, were trying to ward off booksellers flooding the market with cheaper editions of their books.  The eighteenth century debates sound startlingly familiar to those of us following such issues three hundred years later.

This is an old argument.  But now it’s a new world.  And we’re only just at the beginning, standing on the precipice and waiting to see what challenges this new age of electronic reproduction will bring.




P.S.   Apologies for the complete lack of jokes in this posting, kiddies.  I had to take ‘em all out so I could use this piece elsewhere (yes, I do like to make the words multi-task, on occasion.) 

Do feel free to supply your own, though, won’t you.  I’ll even offer prizes for best smart-arse comment able to be tacked on to any above sentence.  Points will be deducted for comments containing actual substance, of course, so don’t say you weren’t warned.

1 Comment

  1. Angela

    I can’t offer a smart arse comment cos to be honest, i don’t understand a great deal of that article.. however i couldn’t resist having a shot at being in the running for some sort of prize… hehehehe

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