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Behind the scenes of Copyfight

by Phillipa McGuinness

‘Someone should write a book about that’ is often my default response to a dramatic event news event or striking personal story. I’m a non-fiction book publisher, so it’s my job to find that someone and, somehow, make a book happen.

If there’s a gap in our history or a story that deserves to be told, I want to get it into print. Often it’s not a light bulb moment; instead I’ll find myself thinking about shifts in the way we see our world.

The book I edited, Copyfight, published in 2015, came about because of these kinds of musings about the way we live now. I had become aware of a disconnect between the assumptions I made in my professional life as a book publisher, part of an industry reliant on copyright for its existence, and the choices.

I saw people making all around me when it came to listening to music, watching television and film or reading books and newspapers. In publishing, authors license us to work with them to take their book to the world in print and electronic forms.

This happens through long-established laws of copyright that ensure our investment in the book will be respected, as will the author’s ownership of their creative work. If we use photographs, poetry or lyrics from another creator, we ask for permission to reproduce that work, permission that sometimes requires a fee, sometimes doesn’t. The author will be paid a royalty and if someone wants to turn their book into a film or television program, an opera or a play, the author can benefit financially.

I realised that the ecosystem that sustained all this publishing-related activity between creators, producers and – we hoped – consumers in the form of readers, was changing. Digital technology, which has made so much possible, fragmented not only the forms in which culture was produced, it was fragmenting the way it was consumed, for better and worse.

Music had long been the canary in the digital coalmine. In my (Generation X) lifetime, buying and listening to music had moved from vinyl and CDs bought at your local record store, to downloads from Apple, to streaming – legally or not – for free, perhaps with a few ads.

Friends would ask me if I’d watched the latest episodes of, say, Game of Thrones. I would answer righteously that they weren’t available in Australia yet. They would tell me that with a VPN, or via a torrent site, those kinds of restrictions didn’t matter. But it’s the law, I’d think to myself: my nice middle-class friends are merrily breaking the law.

All this, and much besides, made me think that it was time for a book where creators themselves could reflect on this new world we’ve made for ourselves. In the copyright world we often hear the voices of lawyers, of politicians, of big tech, and of the mega-famous like Taylor Swift, but those of your everyday writers, musicians, screenwriters, screen producers, photographers, journalists and composers, not so much. But this time when I thought ‘someone should write a book about all this’ I decided that I would do it myself.

I had a fire burning in my belly about the issue but I didn’t want the book to be a one-sided rant. I especially didn’t want it to be seen as a bunch of creative people having a whinge about how things used to be so much better in ye olden times. So even though the Cultural Fund of the Copyright Agency funded the book, I was clear from the outset that there would be some views from those who might be characterised as the ‘copyleft’. I wanted to know how people whose opinions I very often respected – academics – were so contrary to the rights of creators.

Did they really think creators shouldn’t be paid for their work? The views of some academics make more sense when you realise how rapacious some academic journal publishers can be, but many legal academics in the copyright field seem to want to do away with their area of study altogether. Either that, or make it even more legalistic, which is what would happen were a fair use regime to be introduced in Australia. They call what I’m going to say next a cheap shot, but the evidence really does suggest that fair use is a lawyer’s picnic.

As with many things in life, money gets to the nub of it, not least because people need to make a living. I’ve used the word disconnect here, but one of the biggest disconnects is between what most artists make from their work, and what people think they earn. The average writer’s income is $13,000. Most writers aren’t JK Rowling or Kate Forsyth, just as most musicians aren’t Coldplay or Beyonce.

So I was very pleased to have Melbourne-based comedian and songwriter Justin Heazlewood contribute to the book. His chapter includes the book’s only table, which shows just how easy it is to lose money on a music tour, even though touring is the way that many people who are happy not to pay for the music they listen to say that musicians should earn a living.

Authors often fret about how their work will be received. I was relieved that people were interested in the book and its line-up of authors, and was happy to talk about Copyfight and the ideas of its wonderful contributors on radio. Apart from a few random negative comments and tweets, the reaction was positive.

In fact the premise of the book, that copyright is a form of codified respect and the glue that holds the creative ecosystem together, seemed to resonate far and wide. Panels at writers’ festivals, libraries, bookstores and seminars with contributors including Linda Jaivin, Marc Fennell, Peter Duncan, Tim Sherratt, Greg Waters, Sherman Young, Tim Derricourt and Lindy Morrison tended to be engaged and passionate rather than bitter and angry.

There was an event at Gleebooks where I was accused of acting for Big Content and of being a meddling ‘middleman’ between writers and readers, but that amused me more than anything. The non-profit publisher I work for is a long way from Big Content, whatever that even means. Debate was one of the aims of the books and we got it, mainly with civility and nuance.

Publishers and writers wonder whether events will overtake their book. I had flagged the imminent arrival of Netflix, but I don’t think anyone expected it to land with quite the impact it has.

The ALRC review into copyright had issued its draft report when the book was published, but the Productivity Commission’s report was more out of the blue. That it would prompt such fervent response from creators of all stripes was unexpected, though if I had known the Commissioners would state that their preferred position was a copyright term of 15 years, and make other radical recommendations including a fair use regime and the end of territorial copyright, the furore might have been more predictable.

Apple Music happened. Anti-piracy laws got tougher, though we’re yet to see prosecutions. (If it were a movie, Village Roadshow’s Graham Burke would surely be cast as the crusading lawyer for the prosecution.) Trove, discussed in the book and surely one of the best digital outcomes imaginable for writers and researchers, was threatened by government funding cuts. Taylor Swift swung her gaze from Spotify to YouTube but, as many musicians said to me, at least with streaming and subscription services it’s possible you might see some money sometime.

Copyright will always be in the news one way or the other because the stakes are high, higher than people appreciate. Copyfight, which doesn’t have a slightly confrontational title for nothing will, I hope, continue to remind us of just how much it matters.


Phillipa McGuinness is editor of Copyfight and executive publisher at NewSouth Publishing in Sydney. She is writing a history of the year 2001 to be published by Random House in 2018.

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