Could This Be the End of Territorial Copyright?

In Feature Articles by Andrew Wilkins

By Andrew Wilkins

Frankfurt’s enduring relevance as an international rights fair is built to a great extent on the principle of territorial copyright—that invisible patchwork of rights territories that covers the globe.

But what if there was no territorial copyright to enable publishers to safely invest in intellectual property in their own country, safe in the knowledge that another publisher can’t produce a competing edition of the same book in their market?

Some suggest that digitization—and the inevitable consumer demand to have all books available everywhere—may be the biggest threat to territorial copyright. There is one country where the prospect of losing territorial copyright is a very real and present danger. As such, it is worth examining a possible test case for the effect of such a loss.

That country is Australia.

Economic argument against copyright

Yesterday, visitors to the all-new Clients Lounge in Hall 8.0 heard Australian publishers and one notable Australian illustrator discuss a proposal currently before the Australian Government to effectively abolish territorial copyright in Australia by turning the country into an open market. At the time of writing, there is a real prospect that this measure may become law and it’s all the more worrying because the economic reasons given for the move could equally well be applied to any other country.

The Australian Government “think-tank,” the Productivity Commission, was asked last year to consider whether Australia should become an open market for books. Currently, Australian publishers are protected under the Copyright Act from competing against foreign editions of their book provided they follow some simple measures aimed at ensuring that they publish them promptly—within 30 days of the first overseas edition.

Cheap books more important than copyright

What the Productivity Commission found (albeit counter to the overwhelming evidence submitted to it from hundreds of publishers, booksellers and authors) was that territorial copyright protection was making books more expensive in Australia. Assuming that a consumer’s right to cheap books was paramount, the Commission decided therefore that territorial copyright had to go.

The decision has been met by almost unanimous protests from across all sectors of the Australian book industry—with the notable exception of big booksellers, which clearly sees abolition as a chance to bring in cheap editions of Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown.

Now the Australian Government is considering the Commission’s recommendation and has even put forward its own suggestion—that Australian publishers publish simultaneously with first publication elsewhere or lose their territorial rights.

Collateral damage expected

“Even if we’re printing locally, we can’t necessarily get it done in time,” noted Anne Beilby, Rights Manager for leading Australian independent publisher, Text Publishing, at yesterday’s panel discussion “The Publishing Scene in Australia.”

“Modifying the restrictions isn’t enough,” she said. “Removing them isn’t adequate either: we are going to damage our local authors and damage the books we bring in from overseas as well.”

Award-winning Australian book illustrator Shaun Tan, best known for his hit picture book, The Arrival, spoke of the importance of having a local publisher willing and able to invest time and money on an unknown new author. He thought publishers would be unable to make such an investment without territorial protection. If there had been no restrictions on importing overseas editions of books when he was a fledgling author, Tan said he would have moved to another industry such as advertising or film: “There are a lot more lucrative areas for an illustrator than books.”

Unbalancing a balanced market

Matt Handbury, owner of Australian independent publisher Murdoch Books, thought the removal of restrictions would also have a negative impact on what many see as the main reason why the Australian book industry experienced over 4% growth (excluding Stephenie Meyer) over the past year while the US and UK declined, was its strong independent booksellers (which make up about 22% of the Australian book market).

“The truth is that if cheaper books are allowed to come into Australia through the relaxing of laws, the publishers who have the rights will lose sales and the people who sell them will be selling at a lower margin. We’ll see an erosion of the number of booksellers and the number of titles available,” he argued.

“We haven’t forsaken the independents the way the UK and US have done,” agreed Murdoch’s CEO, Juliet Rogers. “It’s a market largely in balance … and it’s a balance we have to hold onto at all costs.”

At this stage, there is no timetable to adopt the Commission’s recommendations, although a decision from Australia’s Government could come at any time. Publishing Perspectives will continue to report on developments online.

You can view a copy of Think Australian magazine (the annual guide to the Australian book trade) at:

About the Author

Andrew Wilkins

Andrew Wilkins is the director of Wilkins Farago, an independent, Melbourne-based book publisher. Until 2008, he was publisher of Australia's book industry magazine, Bookseller+Publisher. He travels regularly throughout the Asia-Pacific region.