Since February, when the Federal Government released what’s known as the Digital Agenda Bill, an argument central to Australia’s cultural and economic future has been played out around the corridors of power.
Sadly, but perhaps understandably, that argument has been ignored by most Australians. After all, copyright is an extremely complex area of intellectual property law, and marrying those complexities with an argument about the future can seem like an extremely abstract exercise.
Nevertheless, authors, publishers and other copyright owners have lobbied the government persistently about the Bill, as have representatives of copyright consumers such as libraries and the Australian Consumers’ Association. To say the least, it has been a spirited debate, which is ultimately about whether Australian creators will be able to sell their work online.
Copyright law allows knowledge-based businesses to market their work and allows creative people to make a living from their efforts. If the legislative framework is not balanced, Australian authors, publishers and visual artists who rely on copyright protection will not be able to compete internationally.
That is why the intention to establish a new right of "communication to the public" with this Bill is a legislative landmark in Australia, and represents very good news for the development of electronic books and journals.
Nonetheless, Copyright Agency Limited (CAL), representing thousands of authors, publishers, journalists and visual artists, was initially concerned that the draft Bill was too prescriptive. Essentially, we believed that if some of the draft provisions had been passed into law the legislation would have been seriously flawed, largely thanks to an inherent presumption that reproducing material in the digital environment is the same as in the print-based world.
However, anyone who has used digital material on their computers, whether obtained via the internet or uploaded from a floppy disk or CD, knows how different digital reproduction is from photocopying. These days, manipulating that content and/or sending it to multiple recipients is a "point and click" exercise, raising all sorts of issues about copyright protection and about access to information.
On 2 September the amended Bill was tabled in the House of Representatives, which immediately sent it to the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs for review. The committee is currently holding a series of public hearings to ascertain community response to the new Bill.
Several of CAL’s concerns have been addressed in the redrafting process, and CAL praises the Government for making these important changes in one of the most complex policy and legislative areas.
In particular, we applaud the way the Bill tabled last month narrows the draft Bill’s definition of "library" to include public libraries but not libraries in organisations which are run for profit. We are also happy to see significant qualifications to interlibrary transactions and to the use of devices designed to circumvent encrypted copyright works. In our submission, we urge the Committee to support the retention of these important changes.
Also significant is the fact that, despite arguments from Australian library representatives, comparison with US and European legislation indicates that the changes to the draft Bill move Australia into greater alignment with these important trading partners.
The Bill as it currently stands also moves Australia much closer towards meeting our obligations under International Copyright and World Trade Organisation treaties.
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