by Greg Holfeld
Intellectual property does not refer to the contents of Stephen Hawking’s shed, but a tangible expression of an idea; a patent, a plan, a book, a painting, a scribble on the back of a napkin.
Not all intellectual property is of equal value (though some of my best work is done on the back of a napkin), but if the recommendations of the Productivity Commission’s draft report on intellectual property arrangement are taken up by the government, the value of all of it will take a beating.
The report, commissioned last year by former Treasurer Joe Hockey, has terms of reference covering everything from plant breeding to pharmaceuticals, but it is the recommendations regarding copyright and the parallel import of books that are the most distressing to those foolhardy enough to attempt making a living from our words and pictures.
Currently in Australia, if you express a unique idea through your craft, be it writing, painting or milk-carton origami, that is your property and anyone seeking to use or reproduce it must ask permission. You have the right to seek compensation.
This can happen directly, or with a licensing arrangement (for example, a publishing contract), or via payments dispensed through the Copyright Agency.
It’s no road to riches; the average author receives around $10,000 per annum from their work.
The commission proposes to dismantle this tenuous arrangement by reducing the terms of copyright from its current 70 years after the creator’s death to somewhere between 15 and 25 years, bringing in a US-style “fair use” of copyrighted material, and allowing the parallel importation of books.
Minister for the Arts Mitch Fifield has already publicly stated the Government is unlikely to make that sort of drastic reduction to the term of copyright. Doing so would likely contravene a number of international trade agreements, so it’s an easy promise that takes the most outrageous suggestion off the table.
“Fair use” is unspecified open use of copyrighted material, and its implementation in the US leaves authors and illustrators without any recourse or compensation when their work is used without permission. Most famously, Google successfully argued that scanning and making available online thousands of books was “fair use”.
Parallel importation means importing foreign editions of books when the copyright is currently held by an Australian publisher. Proponents argue removing current restrictions will make books cheaper, usually because heavily discounted unsold or overprinted foreign editions are dumped onto the Australian market.
Canada and New Zealand have recently removed parallel importing restrictions (notably none of our other trading partners has) and any savings by book-buyers have been negligible and short-lived, while the effect on local publishers, printers, and authors has been devastating.
The final report is due in August whereupon the Government will act upon its recommendations. Public submissions were invited to the draft report and the publishing world responded strongly. My own submission took the form of a cartoon (reproduced here with my permission) where these proposals for intellectual property are applied to a form of property for which Australians have a passionate interest: houses. (Look how apoplectic some get over the suggestion of changing negative gearing.) I hope the cartoon makes clear the reasons for our alarm and outrage.
If you want to read Australian books, written and illustrated by Australians that are treated fairly for their work, you should feel the same.
Article published originally in the Adelaide Advertiser and reposted with the author’s permission)
Greg Holfeld began his career in his native Canada, working up the ladder on various television animation projects in studios from Vancouver to Montreal. A crazy-brave stab at a Tokyo manga career 25 years ago led to animating in London and eventually residing in Adelaide. In Australia he has supplied animation for shows such as Ren and Stimpy, directed commercials and short films such as Barflies, Get in the Car, Love Stinks and Sumo Lake. He began illustrating children's books in 2001 and is now credited with over 35 titles. An Anzac Tale is his most recent project graphic novel.