In a surprise move for Australia's literary creators, the Communique from the Council of Australian Governments’ (COAG) Meeting of 3 July 2008 includes a reference to a COAG agreement on a number of priority areas for competition reform, including parallel importation of books. According to the Communique, the Commonwealth will request the Productivity Commission to undertake reviews of Australia’s anti-dumping system and parallel import restrictions on books.
What, you may well ask, is parallel importation and why is it important for Australian authors? “Parallel importation” refers to importation of products containing copyright material that are manufactured legitimately in the country of origin. In the case of books, parallel importation requires permission from the Australian copyright owner, unless the book was not published in Australia within 30 days of its publication overseas, or the Australian copyright owner cannot supply the book within 90 days.
To ensure Australian bookbuyers had access to the most recent of overseas-published books, the Australian rights up to then to which were often held by a British or US publisher who delayed or withheld distribution of the book in Australia, the Copyright Act was amended in 1991 to allow parallel importation in the circumstances outlined above, following a report of the Prices Surveillance Authority. The Act was subsequently amended to allow parallel importation in more extensive circumstances for CDs, computer software and computer games. There is substantial evidence that this has led to a massive decline in the sales of Australian recorded music, though this is difficult to measure when recording companies first responded to the advent of digital technology with a "head in the sand" approach and lost many sales to unauthorised downloads.
The Australian book publishing industry these days is worth over $1.5 billion. It is Australia's most successful creative industry. Australian books make up nearly 70% of those sold in Australia. The industry has also been very successful in exporting the works of our literary creators, so much so that Shaun Tan and Garth Nix and Nick Earls and Margaret Wild and Tom Keneally and Geraldine Brooks and James Bradley etc. etc. are best-sellers overseas. But they are best sellers in editions licensed to those overseas marketplaces. These licensed editions bring our literary creators welcome additional income. However, if parallel importation restrictions are removed, our literary creators will lose the home market to other editions for which they will receive minimal or no royalties.
The proponents of an open market argue that books would become cheaper for consumers and that 90 days is still too long to wait for a book from the Australian copyright owner. Both of these points are arguable. What the proponents do not point out, though, is that both of the biggest English language book markets, the Uk and the USA, are essentially closed markets in that the sales of books licensed to other territories is prohibited in much the same way as it is in Australia. But both these markets are also many, many times larger than the Australian market. Overwhelming, the books sold in both of those markets are produced especially for each market. It would be rare for a UK edition to sell in the USA and vice versa. But we are being asked to accept an open market for Australia when our market is so much smaller and already much more competitive. This would disappear if all editions were allowed into Australia. It would destroy our publishing industry, which has taken over a hundred years to evolve to the point where the major part of the content sold is Australian and the industry is profitable.
What is more, we would lose our literary culture. And the only people to benefit would be those who are supporting the Productivity Commission review -- and that seems to be primarily the chain bookseller Dymocks. You could be forgiven for thinking that Dymocks are prepared to sacrifice Australia's fragile liteary culture to increase their own profit levels by selling cheap imported editions of overseas books and what would be tantamount to pirated editions of Australian books. But surely that could not be the case when the Hon Bob Carr, former NSW Premier and in that position noted proponent of Australian literature, is on the Dymocks board?
Garth Nix has written a very comprehensive letter about the matter in Australian Bookseller and Publisher. Nick Earls has written to the Prime Minister on the issue. Both of these letters are worth reading, and you can here. They are very balanced approaches to a complex issue, though a simple one for Australia's liteary creators -- their very survival.
This isn't a matter that's simply about the cheapest price. It's about the maintenance of a distinctively Australian culture, about reading our own stories, hearing our own voices. Can you put a price on that?
Authors need to show their opposition to any proposed changes to the current restrictions on parallel importation of books. Take up your pens and write directly to the Prime Minister and the Federal Attorney-General, as well as your State Premier and State Attorney-General. Writing to all of these is necessary as the matter has been raised at COAG and thus becomes a cross-jurisdictional issue.
There will be more on this issue.