It didn’t take long for the COAG announcement about parallel importation of books to flush the myopic forces of cultural protectionism out. Today we learnt that the Australian Publishers Association and the Australian Society of Authors had hired Hawker Britton to stymie efforts to remove protectionist restrictions on Australia’s book industry.

Successive governments have either wussed it or been blocked by the Senate from removing restrictions on the sale of books. Allan Fels did sterling work on this issue over a number of years but left the ACCC without having seen the last bastion of books brought down, as software and import music restrictions had been. That COAG agreed to fix this anti-competitive rort was an unexpected delight emerging from last week’s meeting. Peter Garrett, who led the music industry charge against Fels back in the 1990s, must be having conniptions.

Australian publishers, like other beneficiaries of media regulation like the FTA TV networks and music companies, have had to watch as their fortresses of protectionism have been bypassed by the internet, with consumers exercising the power it hands them to get what they want when they want it, legally or illegally. With a strong Australia-US exchange rate, there’s never been a better time to buy GST-free books from Amazon.

(Strangely, author Nick Earls argues that consumers using the internet to buy books means no reform is needed. It’s not often that evidence that an industry model is failing to meet consumer needs is held up as a reason why it is working just fine.)

Books aren’t the only front on which cultural protectionists are moving. A fortnight ago, ABC TV head Kim Dalton called for a regulatory response to the fact that Australian content requirements on television were being left behind by the shift of content to the internet. Dalton’s point was correct, but his solution, for the government to regulate online content, comes straight from the analog era he was declaring we had left behind.

The answer is for the ABC to create compelling Australian content available across all its platforms (which, it must be acknowledged, it is far ahead of other broadcasters in doing). But the regulate-or-hell mindset is particularly strong in television, where one of the most aggressive rentseekers and protectionists of all, the Screen Producers Association, routinely demands the imposition of draconian content levels on networks and requirements for external production — all intended to drive trade directly to its own members, under the guise of supporting Australian content.

What cultural protectionism amounts to is a mistrust of Australian consumers. Protectionists may declare that Australians will watch/read/listen to “our stories, told well” but either don’t believe it or don’t trust their own capacity to deliver just that. Until ten years ago, they could rely on Governments to regulate the problem away. But online content and commerce routes around that problem very nicely indeed.

The Australian Publishers Association’s campaign should be seen for what it is — the last holdout of copyright protectionism by an industry that fears competition and its inability to meet the demands of Australian consumers.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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