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Australian authors and publishers declare war on the Productivity Commission

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Max O

British and US cultural imperialisms have massively shaped and influenced Australia's cultural mores and bodies. This cultural dominance is found anywhere you care to look - media, arts, film, performing arts, education, publishing etc. 

From the earliest days of the European colonial unsettlement of Aboriginal lifestyles and cultures, attempts have been made to create an identifiable and independent cultural identity for Australia. These attempts have largely reflected the values and beliefs of the working class. Communist authors were very prominent in the 1930s and 40s.

From the 1970s an attempt at cultural assertiveness took place to oppose imperialist cultural control and the 'cultural cringe' that resulted.  The demand for an Australian voice and place to express our stories, experiences, diversity, history, discoveries and inventions was widely supported and saw the rapid expansion of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian cultural identity.

However multinational corporations that produce cultural products have been unrelenting in pushing back this cultural independence and commodifying culture in their own image. Cultural dominance is an important weapon in the arsenal of imperialist hegemony.

One successful outcome of this 1970's push for cultural independence was the flourishing Australian book authors and publishing scene. There has been a massive growth of Australian written and produced books that gave Australia a voice after almost two centuries of a 'colony of the mind'.

These gains are now under threat as a result of a draft report released by the Productivity Commission in late April this year. The report titled, "Inquiry into Australia's Intellectual Property Arrangements" supports the Harper Review's proposal that the Federal Government drop parallel importation restrictions and advocates a US concocted 'fair use' policy that reduces authors’ copyright to 15 years.

If and when Australia's territorial copyright is dismantled, foreign book publishers can then muscle in on and loot a local book industry that generates $2 billion income, publishes 7000 titles each year, employs 20,000 Australians across the industry and invests $120 million yearly in Australian books.

The Productivity Commission justifies the annihilation of the Australian book industry and cultural workers with the following bizarre logic: "The expansion of the books production industries over recent decades has attracted and held productive resources, notably skilled labour and capital, that have thereby been unavailable for use in other industries. The upshot will have been reduced growth in employment and output in other parts of the economy.”

Only a neo-liberal comprador organisation could come up with such a flawed analysis that only benefits the huge British and US publishing industry. The removal of parallel importation rules will flood the market with cheap foreign editions of Australian authored books and damage the local publishing industry.

The cutback of Australian authors' copyright from 70 to 15 years will reduce their income and control of their literary work. Currently the average Australian author earns around $13000 a year for their literary efforts.

Why the need for Parallel Importation Restrictions (PIR)?

Australia regulates parallel importation of books. This results in retailers buying bulk copies of a book only from a publisher who holds Australian rights. Consequently a publisher has to make their book available in Australia swiftly in order to retain their exclusive rights. Nevertheless, this does not deny the right of booksellers and consumers to buy single copies of books directly from an overseas seller.
If PIRs were eliminated this would dismantle the notion of territorial copyright for Australian authors and their publishers. Ironically, authors in Britain and US retain their territorial copyright privileges.

The removal of the PIRs would result in:
•    Reduction of purchasing of international rights by Australian publishers, a practice which has allowed the local industry to generate income to invest in Australian authors.
•    Substantial reduction in the value of international rights trading, which is how Australian authors and their publishers manage financial risk and increase income.
•    Reduction in author income because of the potential shift from local retail royalties to the lower net receipt royalties of overseas editions.
•    Reduction in local print as a result of overseas stock flooding the local market.

The neo-liberal compradors in the Productivity Commission showed no interest at all to the damage done to New Zealand and Canadian authors and publishers when these countries changed their laws on territorial copyright. New Zealand saw the sale of their titles fall by 35% after their PIR was eliminated, whereas sales rose of Australian titles over the same period.

In Canada teachers and students have seen the erosion of local educational content in their books that are now available to them. A clear warning to Australian teachers and students of the adverse effects of removing PIR regulations!

Australian authors hit back

The Australian Book Industry Awards in Sydney, 19 May gave local authors the opportunity to blast the Productivity Commission and the Turnball Government for selling out Australian arts and culture. Richard Flanagan, (seated middle above at the ABIA night), author of The Narrow Road to the Deep North and a 2014 Prime Minister's Literary Award winner had some choice words for them when he delivered the final speech of the night.

Flanagan declared that, "The last two Liberal governments have been the worst in history for arts and culture." He went onto say: "The report’s proposals, which even before seeing them the Turnbull government agreed to endorse, effectively extinguish the Australian book industry as we know it and deliver our market to American and British publishers.

"And that’s what this government thinks of everyone in this room. Be under no illusion: they want to destroy this industry. And with it, Australian literature. They want you out of a job, they want us no longer writing. Cultural externalities are, after all, external to who and what we are.

"And perhaps this is all not so surprising, because the Turnbull government’s decision is not based in reality. Vassals of an outdated ideology unrelated to the real world, they can, when questioned on this issue, only mumble neo-liberal mantras that have delivered the world economic stagnation, rising inequality, and global environmental crisis. Hollow men, stuffed men, their words rats feet over broken glass. The only thing these people read are The Panama Papers to see if their own name has cropped up.

"This decision to destroy the book industry by removing parallel import restrictions is consistent with the government’s relentless assaults on science and scientists. It is of a piece with its ongoing attacks on thought and debate. Who benefits from ignorance and silence other than the most powerful and the richest?"

There will be no benefits but unmitigated disaster for Australian literature, authors and publishers when the PIR is dismantled and the local copyright provisions are reduced to virtually nothing. What is happening to Australian literature is part of the long litany of destruction of local manufacture, agriculture, science, education and technology that continues in this country; making our nation a dependent, client capitalist state that is easily ravaged by foreign corporations.


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