There’s a lot at stake in the world of books and writing and publishing. Our industry is blossoming. We're selling great books at home and exporting our writers in unprecedented numbers. We have a superb retail environment, with a dynamic independent sector, and a competitive printing industry that generates significant numbers of skilled jobs. There's never been a better time to be a writer or publisher in Australia.
Much of this energy has been harnessed by our "use it or lose it" territorial copyright regime - the 30-day rule introduced in 1991 that keeps in balance the interests of consumers and producers by compelling local publishers to publish a book within a month of its appearance anywhere in the world.
Territorial copyright enables copyright holders to be paid properly for their work in their own country by preventing the unauthorised importation of foreign editions that characteristically pay a much lower royalty. The 30-day rule guarantees Australian copyright and full domestic royalties for Australian writers. The US, Britain and Canada all support territorial copyright for books.
The Productivity Commission has just delivered a draft report on its inquiry into our territorial copyright regime and proposes we keep the rule. But what the commission giveth, it also taketh away. Instead of "use it or lose it", the commission wants a "use it and lose it" rule, under which, a year after a book is published in Australia, its publication territorial copyright would be erased.
After that, it's open slather for the dumpers, the remainder merchants, the low-royalty free riders. Within that first year, if stock becomes unavailable for any reason, booksellers could source foreign editions, but would then have to buy the Australian edition once local supply was restored.
These findings are contradictory and confusing. They would add an unworkable complexity to a system that functions beautifully. The Productivity Commission seems to think that backlist sales (of books published more than a year earlier) are trivial. If so, it is wrong. For many retailers, the backlist is as much as 40 per cent of all sales. At Text, for example, in the past two years backlist sales have accounted for between 40 and 50 per cent of all sales.
Backlist, you see, contains the best books, the books that people want to go on reading, that articulate most profoundly our stories, who we are and what we do and how we talk to each other, books such as Tim Winton's Cloudstreet, The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, Murray Bail's Eucalyptus and so many other much loved, internationally successful Australian books.
The commission's proposal is designed to punish our best writers and diminish their incomes. It will punish those writers whose books win big international prizes and are made into films. It will hurt those very writers whose careers have flourished internationally under the 30-day rule.
At Text, many of our best backlist titles have their biggest sales after the first 12 months. It's a typical pattern. Kate Grenville's The Secret River sold five times as many copies in its second year as in its first. We published Peter Temple's masterpiece The Broken Shore in August 2005 and it has now sold 10 times as many copies as it did in its first year. Both of these writers are bestsellers in Britain.
The Productivity Commission proposal will allow our best books by our best writers to be picked off by low-royalty imports. This is exactly what the 30-day rule is designed to prevent.
What have our writers done to be stripped of rights that every writer in the US, Britain and Canada has? Would we weaken the market power of athletes, actors or artists precisely because they were successful at home and abroad?
The commission has some free advice to the industry on how to get around the rules it wants to introduce, a rather odd tactic in itself. It suggests that we delay selling international rights as long as possible to shield ourselves from competing foreign editions. So much for the passion to export writers. It's a terrible idea. Twelve months after we publish, we would have no Australian copyright. Our competitive days will be over.
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