It’s been a thrilling week for literature in Australia with the presentation of both the prestigious Miles Franklin on Sunday as well as the Australian Book Industry Awards last night in Brisbane. Unsurprisingly, the biggest talking point at both events was the impending final report to the Productivity Commission on the copyright restrictions on the so-called ‘parallel importation of books’.

Under current copyright law, publishers have 30 days to decide whether to print an Australian version of any book is released overseas. If they choose to go ahead, and get it done in that 30 days, all local booksellers must buy the book from the Australian publisher and cannot import it from a cheaper source. It’s a sort of compromise on protectionism for the industry.

In its draft report in April however, the commission recommended that the 30-day release rule should stay, but import restrictions apply for only one year from when a book is published in Australia — a notion that has been strongly rejected by a whole gamut of prominent writers, editors, booksellers and publishers. On accepting the Miles Franklin, Tim Winton said this:

Winton is not alone. Here, Crikey compiles some snippets from a variety of submissions made to Productivity Commission:

Jennifer Byrne:

Publishing is not a fat industry. Authors struggle to get their work published, and the vast majority earn way below the basic wage. Editors work for some $45,000 a year. Publishers do not smoke cigars. I have been enormously excited and heartened to see the evolution of Australian publishing — and in recent years, the springing up of small presses such as Text and Hardie Grant, Scribe and Giramondo, to name but a few. The simple fact is: the restriction of Australian territorial copyright threatens the survival of this country’s smaller presses, and the courage and vigour of the larger houses.

Wendy Harmer urges them to think of the children:

The main character of my books is Pearlie – a fairy who lives in Jubilee Park with possums and lilli pilli trees. Her best friend is an Aboriginal character named “Opal” who comes from “Rainbow Ridge” and rides a frill necked lizard. They celebrate a hot Christmas day! Fair dinkum!… I have fought, and fought hard, to retain the “Australianess” of my creation in the face of what I see as the globalisation of childhood experience. (Try finding a “holiday” movie on the Disney Channel without snow!”)

Wherever I travel, I meet Australian parents who have aspirations to have their own tales for their children make it into print. They know that they have something to say that’s invaluable to Aussie kids. They understand the power of literature to give a child a sense of place and
belonging. They have no hope of doing this if our publishing houses are gutted of editors and publicists, cover designers and proof readers and are instead populated by stock takers and bean counters.

Morris Gleitzman sings a similar tune:

Future generations of Australian children would not get the stories they need. How much damage would that do those young people? What would it do to their self-confidence, their capacity for empathy, their skill at recognising universal truths in the particulars of their lives, their understanding that heroes can be local, their enthusiasm for social cohesion, their pride in our shared values, their ability to feel good about themselves? Ask any teacher.

Nam Le argues in favour of caution without good data:

At the beginning of this submission, I asserted that it would be irresponsible to enact the Commission’s recommendations unless the case were convincingly made that the benefits from so doing would outweigh the costs. It is clear, I believe, that this case has not been made in the Report. Many comments in the Report itself support this conclusion. As it says:

[I]nformation gaps and uncertainties suggest the need for a cautious approach to reform in this area.

The recommended reforms are not cautious. They run the full gamut of risks/costs discussed above without any satisfactory apprehension of intended benefits. They bypass consideration of alternative policy instruments. And, if implemented, they will be costly to reverse, should that need arise. I submit that the cautious course of action is clearly to maintain the status quo — at least until the case to change it has been satisfactorily made.

Which is very similar with what Tim Winton had to say:

It is my view that the Commission’s inquiries have not produced the data required to make safe recommendations on the future of Australian publishing. It alarms me to see the PC concede that while it has unreliable and incomplete data upon which to make a determination, it remains eager for reform nonetheless. The summary of the PC’s draft findings amounts to little more than ‘poke it and see what happens’. It is my respectful contention that the PC is still uncertain about the creature it would like to poke, and that it requires a lot more knowledge from which to make a safe determination about the likely consequences of such a poking. My hope is that prudence will prevail and that as a result territorial copyright will continue to be respected in Australia.

And again from Nick Earls:

If good data existed demonstrating a clear price benefit associated with parallel importation, it would need to be carefully weighed against possible detriments. If there is no good data to demonstrate clearly the benefit of change — as is currently the case — the change should simply not be made.

Kate Grenvilles submissions are comprehensive. Some insights:

It seems a kind of madness on the one hand to be urging the world to buy Australian products through AusTrade and other arms of government — spruiking Australian meat and wine and so on to overseas nations — and on the other to be undermining both the income and the support infrastructure (i.e. the publishing industry) of one kind of highly successful exporter.

The tragedy is that, no matter how important they are, cultural externalities can’t be quantified in a way that will have any traction in a debate about economics.

Peter Carey writes about nexus between culture and commerce:

As long as we have a territorial copyright our publishers have a commercial argument to support Australian literature. They will battle for the sake of our readers and our writers, even if their owners have no personal commitment to the strange loves and needs of Australian readers, or the cultural integrity and future of the Australian nation. Take copyright away from them, and they no longer have a commercial leg to
stand on.

Finally, Tim Flannery notes this:

If Australian publishing was languishing, I could understand the desire to change things. But it is flourishing. And I fear that publishing, being a complex business, is likely to be made worse rather than better by the proposed intervention.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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