Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Copyright: Some notes after the Melbourne Writers Festival

Under the Australian Copyright Act of 1968 artistic ideas are reputedly protected from plagiarists and plunderers, but that is possibly only enforced when creators are backed by sufficient cash resources to defend their rights. Most cases heard in Australian courts relating to copyright have been brought by larger companies protecting their economic interests. It is rare that an individual creator has the resources to bring action against a copyright infringer.

But a creator at least has the ability to decide what to do with their creation. In the case of an author, in order to make a living, the creative work is usually licensed to a publisher who pays the author a fee or royalty for the use of the material in different forms, but primarily for publication in book form. It is always an option for an author to choose to give their work away if they do not wish to earn any income from it.

In the session on copyright at the Melbourne Writers Festival on 26 August I joined a panel that discussed many questions about how we can preserve and protect the intellectual property of authors who publish in an online environment and how we can predict the future of the printed word and the publishing industry. Other members of the panel included Hugo Award-winning author Cory Doctorow who has published three science fiction novels. Cory allows his books to be downloaded from the internet for free under a Creative Commons License (craphound.com). Cory argues that e-books should be seen as a way of winning new audiences rather than losing sales. Sandy Grant, Publisher of Hardie Grant Books and Director of Copyright Agency Limited, wondered whether there was any real advantage in this. He welcomed the free marketing, and was very complimentary about Cory's website, but suggested that there was far too much unedited material available on the net and publishers added valuable quality control to printed products.

Jessica Coates, project manager of Creative Commons, asserted that the e-age will empower online authors, but she cautioned that authors need to be clear what they want to do and the licensing terms they are entering into.

As Executive Director of the Australian Society of Authors and a member of the Board of the Australian Copyright Council, I agree entirely with this approach. An author should be very clear as to the terms of any publishing agreement, whether that agreement be for traditional print use or online use, and whether for payment or otherwise. Authors should also know what they have licensed. For example, if you use a creative Commons licence to allow your work to be disseminated and copied freely, you may find that you are not entitled to payments for copying of your work under the statutory licences embedded in the Australian Copyright Act (such licences do not operate in the Unted States). Also if a library downloads and prints a copy of your work, then stores it for access, you may find you are not entitled to lending rights payments for that copy.

The Australian Society of Authors can provide help and assistance to members seeking clarification on these issues. The Australian Copyright Council and Creative Commons also provide advice.

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