Thursday, November 29, 2007

A breath of fresh artistic air

Australian authors should welcome the advent of the Rudd Labor Government for a couple of reasons.
First, Labor produced an arts policy before the election. The Coalition failed to do so. While the ALP arts policy had a number of holes, particularly to do with literature, at least it was a policy. In policy terms, I happen to think the Greens arts policy is actually much better articulated, but the Greens do not have the majority in the House of Representatives. Nevertheless, Labor relies on Green preferences for its majority in many seats and the new government should not lightly discount the Greens' arts policy.
Second, Labor suports ongoing funding for Educational Lending Right (ELR -- as did the Coalition, the Democrats and the Greens). But authors still need to ensure that ELR funding is increased and indexed.
Another reason for which we should welcome the election of the Labor government is the appointment of Peter Garrett AM to the position of Arts minister. Peter is a practising artist. He know the difficulties and issues artists face. I believe he will be a great arts minister. I congratulate him on his apointment.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Google print and remuneration for authors

We all know Google as the search engine we’re most likely to use on our computers, as I do several times a day. Google is also a public company, making its stock market debut in August 2004 when 19.6 million shares were sold at US$85 (A$113.77) raising US$1.67 billion (A$2.24 billion). Today, Google is worth roughly US$90 billion (A$120.5 billion), making staggering profits through its online advertising programs. For the third quarter of 2005, Google reported record profits of US$ 381 million (A$510 million) on revenues of US$1.6 billion (A$2.1 billion) and sales of US$1.05 billion (A$1.4 billion). Google is no charity.
Recently, the company announced the Google Print project. On the face of it, Google Print is an excellent use of internet technology. If you haven’t used it, check it out at You’ll find you can search an online database of thousands of books and view sample pages. For example, I used the search term “Australian Society of Authors” and in seconds I had a list of publications in which this term appears. The publications included a tremendous variety of works a considerable number of which were by past and present ASA members including works of Anthony Barker and Anna Funder. The only thing these works had in common was that somewhere in their text was contained the term “Australian Society of Authors”.
With the next mouse click Google Print took me directly to an electronic copy of the page where that term appears. In the case of Anthony Barker, the page was from the index where the ASA was listed. For Anna Funder, I found myself looking at the acknowledgements section of Bruno Amato’s Italian translation of Stasiland, the novel published after Funder’s ASA mentorship with John Tranter. I could look at a number of pages either side of the one I was first taken to, as well as the copyright page and the contents pages. I was unable to print out any of the book pages. Google claims this is impossible, as it also claims it is impossible to access an entire book through this means. However, I suspect some smart hacker is already working on ways to outwit the protection technology Google has in place.
The books I uncovered in my search had been licensed into Google Print by their publishers. Google Print is aimed at publishers, although it will deal with self-publishers. It invites large publishers or small presses to think of Google Print as a free worldwide sales and marketing system that matches people who are looking for information with the relevant words and phrases inside their books.
A number of publishers, such as Cambridge University Press, still have reservations about the system and they require users of Google Print to enter additional information before they can view the pages of their books. For these publishers, users are required to register to use the service. Some other publishers list only their books and restrict access to any pages from their books, even though the content remains searchable. That is, a user knows the information is in the book but can’t read it on screen. Other publishers allow users to search non-fiction works, but not fiction. As an example of this, I searched using Miles Franklin award-winner Andrew McGahan’s name. An impressive list of his titles appeared and I was able to view front and back covers, access ISBNs and read copyright information but nothing else. It was enough to give me a taste of the books. Amazon offers a similar service for many of the titles it offers for sale and displays front and back cover, contents copyright information and a little snippet of text.
Google argues its business model will attract new readers and boost book sales, allow publishers and authors to earn new revenue from Google contextual ads, and to interact more closely with customers through direct links back to the publishers’ websites. It is certainly a service of benefit to serious and casual researchers, and it’s much less confronting than asking a stupid question of a librarian or bookseller. Indeed, booksellers should be worried about this model as it has the potential to remove them from the supply chain.
Potentially authors can gain not only extra sales but additional subsidiary income, provided of course their publishing contract allows for them to share extra revenue from Google Print or in fact permits the publisher to licence an electronic facsimile of their book into Google Print. Questions about such grants of rights may well become issues between authors and publishers in the future, as is currently the case with aggregators of online content. Even so, Google Print seems like a sensible move into the digital environment. Google’s competitors think so. Yahoo, in partnership with Hewlett Packard, Adobe and the universities of California and Toronto, has announced plans to offer searchable, digitised texts as well. Yahoo, like Google, obviously scents money. Unlike, Google, however, Yahoo plans only to digitise works that are in the public domain or for which it has the rightsholders’ permission.
It is Google’s plans to digitise works without the permission of rightsholders that has earned the wrath of both the Authors’ Guild and the Association of American Publishers. Both organisations are suing Google. The issue is Google Print’s abuse of authors’ rights through its digitisation of books held in various US libraries in a project known as Google Library. In doing so, Google shows no respect for copyright. Rather, Google is claiming it has a fair use exemption that permits it to ignore the rights of authors and publishers.
Google’s seeming concession to rightsholders is to offer an “opt out” facility. Google says it will not digitise the works of those who voice their objections. Google also says it will remove works already digitised if rightsholders – and that means authors like you and me – tell it to do so.
Sounds reasonable, says Joe Public. Sounds like daylight robbery to me. Google has no right to steal the digitisation rights of authors. It is acting like a thief in this regard. It is no defence for a thief caught with stolen goods in his hands to say “oh, is this yours? Sorry, I didn’t mean to pinch it. Here, have it back”. It’s no defence for Google, either, but nevertheless Google is trying it on.
Respect for copyright, and the creative effort it is intended to reward, is a vital concern for both authors and publishers. It is the basis for the contracts into which authors and publishers enter.
Google’s digitisation of books in libraries ignores this. Google proposes to digitise hundreds of thousands books in their entirety without seeking permission from the authors of those books. Theft is theft is theft. And yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Google could licence the content and not act as a pirate, raiding library collections without regard for rights. With an appropriate licence system in place even more material could be made available to users. This is not a difficult problem to overcome. Businesses sign licence agreements every day.
Obviously, Google sees profitable outcomes in its investment in Google Library. Both Google Print and Google Library are intended to bring more visitors and profits to its website and ancillary services. However, in the case of Google Library, the profit comes from the works of authors. Those authors – you and me -- should be properly compensated.
Nothing more, nothing less.

Let's remember freedom of expression!

Flying aeroplanes into buildings and bombing trains and buses makes for spectacular television footage. The events, horrible as they are, seem even more horrendous after hours of live coverage and endless interviews with shocked participants. The perpetrators of events like these are unconscionable. Regardless of motivation, by their actions they show they are incapable of sustained, reasoned debate. They are no different from sociopaths and psychopaths in that they lack the capacity to measure right from wrong. For this they might deserve our pity, but they do not earn our compassion.
However, in yielding them no moral ground, we need to be careful to maintain our current level of freedom of expression. Recently, a number of seemingly fair-minded commentators and government spokespeople have expressed support for the banning of publications and books that promulgate the views espoused by those who bomb and terrorise. The logic seems to be that if you ban the words, you cease the actions.
But this is flawed logic. It has never worked. The narrow attitudes and cultural insularity of our own past are near enough to make this abundantly clear.
For much of the 20th century, Australia’s access to information was highly regulated. The power awarded to the Customs Department under the Customs Act gave the responsible Minister the power to ban any imported work by proclamation. In 1933 the government established a Book Censorship Advisory Committee to provide the Customs Department with an educated and literary body able to prohibit the importing of inappropriate works. The members of the committee, all men, were professors, the parliamentary librarian and other distinguished Australians. They quickly established strict and rigorous criteria for the censorship of works. Anything mildly sexually explicit, positive about homosexuality or outside very narrow moral boundaries was prohibited. The department was soon banning an average of six books, newspaper and magazines a month. The censors prided themselves on maintaining ‘Anglo Saxon’ standards, as historians Nicole Moore and Deana Heath have discovered in their analysis of this process.
Along with Ireland and the increasingly apartheid-dominated South Africa, Australia was one of the worst censors in the Western world for most of the last century. Australian censors had no compunction in banning works that were acceptable in London, Paris and New York. There was a further extension of their narrowness of view in 1938 when the government set up a fund to encourage the development of literature in Australia. Those appointed to the fund were the members of the Literature Censorship Board. That is, literature in Australia was to be developed by the censors of imported literature. (Some cynics claim nothing has changed.)
But there was little discontent or commentary on censorship from booksellers or publishers or academics. It was authors who were active in the Anti-Censorship League. Authors such as Miles Franklin and Nettie Palmer opposed not only the draconian laws covering sexual expression but also those laws that allowed for the banning of books for their ‘seditious’ content. ‘Sedition’ was interpreted by those responsible for administering these laws as the ‘overthrow of civilised government’ and both novels and political tracts were banned.
The Left Book Club, founded by the famed British publisher Victor Gollancz in May 1936, had a missionary objective in educating its members with cheap, informative and readable books. A Sydney branch was established in 1938, and late that year there were over 4000 members in Australia. In 1939, after the signing of the Soviet–German non-aggression pact, the government unveiled plans to ban communist newspapers and severely censor other of their publications. Two months later, the CPA was declared a subversive and illegal organisation and party premises, including those associated with the Left Book Club, were raided.
Left Book Club publications seized by the Australian government included such subversive works as those of George Meredith, George Orwell (Down and out in Paris and London and Keep the aspidistra flying had been banned in 1936), Stephen Spender, A.L. Morton, Arthur Koestler and John Strachey. The Australian government banned all literature that dealt with the Soviet Union, despite such works being freely available in the United Kingdom.
While Customs Acts and Police Offences Acts restricted the importation of material deemed seditious or obscene from overseas, there were many other laws available through which authorities could prohibit the dissemination of information. These included advertising and gaming acts, crimes and vagrancy acts, Post Office acts, public health and venereal diseases acts, Commerce Acts, acts for the protection of children, acts covering defamation, printers and newspaper, as well as obscene publications acts.
Even after the war and during the fifties and sixties, Australia’s elaborate censorship system limited our ability to access a full range of information on a range of topics, but particularly sexuality. Christina Stead’s Letty Fox; Her luck was banned in 1947, Australia being the only country to find the work of one of our most significant writers offensive. Homosexuality was a special target of the censors who banned such respectable academic works as D.J. West’s Homosexuality as well as James Baldwin’s Another country and Gore Vidal’s City and the pillar.
In the end, though, the censors did not win and Australian society did not fall apart as a result of the increased awareness of sexuality and other cultures that resulted. In fact, the easing of censorship had an opposite effect, leading to a cultural renaissance, a re-establishment of Australian films and a recognition, with the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Patrick White in 1973, that Australian writers were equal to those from the rest of the world.
Today, Australians are proud of their multicultural, multifaceted country. We are proud of our diverse culture. We are no longer confined by a narrow Anglo Saxon viewpoint. Therefore it behoves us to resist any efforts to bring back the constrictive censorship of the past. There is no justification for it.
Freedom of expression enhances communication. Without it, we close the doors to those with whom we should be speaking and we are no longer a free and tolerant society. That is, we become so like those zealots with their life-destroying doctrines that we might as well be them.
Copyright © 2007 Australian Society of Authors/Jeremy Fisher

Friday, November 9, 2007

What you can do for authors this election

The ASA has a number of concerns related to authors that we feel our politicians should address. We encourage members to take up these issues with their local member and the leaders of the major parties. Members can find contact details for their Federal parliamentarians here.

Traditional mail still works the best. Emails are a less effective means of registering your concerns with your parliamentarian or with our leaders. A key aspect of letters is that they reflect your individuality. Form letters or letters repeating the same phrases don’t carry the same weight as a letter from a concerned elector. If you are in a swinging seat, contact both the sitting Member and the candidate from the other party. Send copies to the party leaders, Mr Howard, Mr Rudd, Senator Brown, Senator Fielding and Senator Allison. Use your writing skills!

Educational Lending Right/Public Lending Right

The Greens, the Democrats, Labor and the Coalition have all committed to ongoing funding for Educational Lending Right (ELR). The Greens and the Democrats have also accepted the ASA’s proposal that ELR funding be increased and indexed (the details can be read on the ASA site here). Neither Labor nor the Coalition have as yet committed to any level of funding for ELR, nor have either party endorsed the ASA’s proposal to increase funding for ELR to $16 million and have it subject to WCI6 indexation. The ASA also calls for the Public Lending Right pool to be increased to $10 million. If you are in safe seat, send a letter to your local Member encouraging them to support the ASA’s proposals. Stress how valuable Lending Rights payments are to authors whose income is otherwise precarious. If you are in a swinging seat, you'll need to be more proactive and write to at least the two candidates most likely to win.

Literature in Education

The ASA has welcomed moves by the NSW Minister for Education and the WA Department of Education to strengthen the study of Australian literature. We have long advocated the study of Australian literature as a means of providing a sense of cultural identity, insight into our diversity and knowledge of our unique place in the world. Literature presents many perspectives on life, powerfully imagined and memorably expressed, and that exposure to this variety of ways of thinking about the world is one of the main benefits of literary study, particularly in a multicultural and diverse society such as ours.
It is important that all our Federal politicians commit to ongoing support for the teaching and use of Australian literature in ours schools. The Federal Government can do such things as fund the purchase of books for schools that use class sets. The teaching and study of Australian literature in schools and universities contributes to the domestic publishing industry and helps to support Australian writers. Australia’s literature, along with its history, has an important role in schools and universities in helping people understand and appreciate the Australian imagination.

Tax free awards and grants for artists

Motivated by Prime Minister John’s Howard’s move to make his $100,000 Award for History tax-exempt, the ASA calls for the removal of tax liability for literary prizes as one way of improving the level of financial support to Australian writers. Grants from the Australia Council would be included.