by Hazel Edwards OAM
I still live in the house where, 38 years ago, the roof leaked. This inspired me to write There’s a Hippopotamus on our Roof Eating Cake.
You might have shared this book for children. It’s the reassuring story of a small girl and her imaginary friend, a loveable pink hippopotamus who lives on the roof.
The hippo, as the girl will tell you, can do what he likes, including eating a steady diet of cake.
It’s been a very important book for me and for the people who bought the millions of copies that have sold in the intervening years.
The book is still for sale and has been reprinted every year since it was first published in 1980. It has indirectly provided jobs for many people. This year, in a dramatically and creatively satisfying development, it became a touring musical for children – Hippo, Hippo the Musical.
Do I know why it’s been so loved? Yes and no. I always knew it was special. There’s nothing quite like inspiring a child’s imagination to take flight – it’s a gift to let them say, “Yes, I wish it was so.”
On the practical side, that book, its five sequels and about 200 others I have written as a fulltime ,self-employed author, have allowed me to co-pay the mortgage, do drip, drip, drip renos over the years and have given my family a place to live.
Real estate property rights differ from book property rights – or copyright – where the returns are precarious, especially when ‘pirates’ want to enjoy my books unfairly for no payment.
On top of that there are people, who you think would know better, suggesting that the commercial life of a book is only 15 years and that copyright protection is “cast too widely and lasts too long.”
I am not an economist, but I know that if I were unable to make money from my work as an author that I would not have kept going.
As it is, I have been able to keep writing – I am not wealthy – perhaps not as wealthy as an economist working for the Productivity Commission – but I have made a good living. I and my collaborating illustrator Deborah Niland have generated wealth for others – and by that I mean by inspiring in children and adults a wealthy imaginative life.
That kind of wealth is very hard to measure – some would call it priceless.
As a beneficiary of Australia’s world-leading and fair copyright regulations, I would have to say that they work for me. That’s not to say everything is always perfect – but I certainly oppose changes such as the introduction of a U.S. copyright doctrine that might mean that organisations – such as digital technology giants, schools and universities (who would never countenance not paying for electricity) - might be able to copy and share my work without making a fair payment. How can that be an improvement?
At the moment, should my grandchildren want to pursue a career in the creative arts – perhaps creating the next version of Play School– I might say go for it!
But if the multiple small sources of income I rely on – from libraries (PLR and ELR), from the Copyright Agency for copying by schools and universities, and from publishers – are threatened, as I feel they are now, then what does that mean for our creators of the future? They’re your sons and daughters too.
A creative life is richly rewarding in many ways but few actually make a great living from it – yet our work is well-loved and enjoyed by many people.
The just completed, booked-out four-month national tour of Hippo Hippo the Musical proves that a story can have a long life of options and rights in new mediums, especially with ethical directors who pay royalties and respect copyright. Under the Productivity Commission’s suggested changes this musical could still have happened, but I would be cut out of the revenue stream. So would other creators. Does that sound fair?
Frankly, it’s been the height of my literary career to watch the involved audience of Hippo Hippo the Musical and listen to the cast own my characters and even sing to very hummable music. And to know that this vintage story has lasted emotionally for 38 years – but also that copyright royalties are being paid by an ethical director.
I still get children knocking at the door of my Blackburn home to ask if this is the house where the hippo lives. So I say, “Have a look!”’
Hazel Edwards is an award- winning Australian author whose recent book is the memoir Not Just a Piece of Cake: Being An Author.
(Article originally published in The Australian and republished with the author’s permission)