Updated: Australia’s ABIA-Awarded Authors’ Protest

In News by Dennis Abrams

‘It distresses me to see how anxious our technocrats are to piss all this good work up against the wall.’ Australian ABIA-winner Tim Winton is among those speaking out loudly against shortened copyright terms and other adjustments.
All smiles for the Australian Book Industry Awards, the recipients are blasting Australia's Productivity Commission for its proposed weakening of copyright protection. At left, author and presenter Thomas Keneally, author Magda Szubanski, and author Tim Winton, left. Images: ABIA

All smiles for the Australian Book Industry Awards, writers are blasting Australia’s Productivity Commission for its proposed weakening of copyright protection. At left, author and presenter Thomas Keneally, with 2016 winners Magda Szubanski and Tim Winton. Images: ABIA

UPDATE MAY 24: Shortly after we published our piece today on the Australian Productivity Commission’s public-comments period (until June 3) for its controversial draft report on intellectual property rights, there is news from Simon Thomsen at Business Insider Australia: “The Turnbull government just killed off the copyright changes that were freaking out authors.” While that headline may be overstating the fact, Thomsen writes today: “Federal Arts Minister Mitch Fifield has squashed any prospect of changes to copyright law in the wake of a draft Productivity Commission report that suggested cutting intellectual property from the current international standard of 70 years after the death of the author to 15-20 years after the work was published.” Sen. Fifield’s comment, per Thomsen is that changing copyright “is not something the government has considered, proposed or intends to do.” Fifield reportedly draws the distinction between a proposal to government vs. a proposal by government, indicating that the Productivity Commission’s proposal will not get a good reception when rendered to the government in August if it recommends copyright changes. The development is connected by Thomsen in his writeup to comments at the ABIA Awards event from Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan. All of which indicates that the outcry mounted by authors around those awards, as described below, may be having the effect that many in the creative community of Australia wanted. We anticipate further coverage of this issue as it develops.—Porter Anderson

By Dennis Abrams | @DennisAbrams2

‘All These Amazing Authors Will Start Leaving’
Writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Martin parses plans proposed late last month to make major changes to Australia’s copyright laws, both in the text of his article and in a useful video embedded on the Morning Herald’s page:

Peter Martin

Peter Martin

“The Productivity Commission has recommended the free import of books, the free use of copyrighted material under new so-called “fair use” rules, a leglislated guarantee that consumers have the right to defeat internet geoblockers and much tighter restrictions on the granting and use of patents, under reforms it says could save consumers up to $1 billion a year…

“Subtitled Copy(not)right, the draft report of the commission’s nine-month inquiry into intellectual property finds copyright terms are way in excess of what is needed, offering more than 100 years of protection for works that ought to be protected for 15 to 20 years.”

Last week’s Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA) ceremony, as Steph Harmon and Lucy Clark write in The Guardian, “was given over to protesting…industry changes which would reduce authors’ copyright control over their books and would flood the market with cheap overseas editions of books.”

US author Jonathan Franzen, in Australia for the festival, said that “Even America is not so slavishly subservient to a theory of the free market that we don’t protect our authors, our booksellers, and our publishers.”

Using the resources of its Guardian Australia team, The Guardian article offers a set of comments from personalities present at the awards. They include:

Magda Szubanski, winner of best biography and book of the year for Reckoning: A Memoir:

Magda Szubanski“My message is really simple: if this comes in, I will not write another book and I will really start thinking about leaving the country. Because the financial cost of being here is becoming ridiculous. I’ve stayed in this country because I love it. I feel I’ve made quite a contribution to the arts and culture here, and we should be recompensed properly. In order to write my book it took me eight years. I took time off from work, I took out a loan. I’ll be lucky if I break even.

“To actually stand by while sanctioned theft takes place? Do you think I’m a complete fool? It just can’t be allowed to happen.

“All these amazing authors that are here will start leaving and there will be a desecration of the whole landscape, a desertification of the landscape … And of course I’ve got the two issues: I don’t even have the same rights as everybody else because of marriage equality and now my passion, my art, is being assaulted as well. I mean, why would you stay?”

Tim Winton, winner of non-fiction book of the year for Island Home: a Landscape Memoir:

Tim Winton

Tim Winton

“Think: books like Possum Magic, The Book Thief, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, The True History of the Kelly Gang, The Slap, The Secret River – all these are the fruits of a publishing culture that allowed its writers to speak to their own, a culture that nurtured these writers long enough for them to break out and of course to publish from home to the world on just and logical terms.

“So it distresses me to see how anxious our technocrats are to piss all this good work up against the wall. What makes our industry viable and our literary output distinctive is the concept of territorial copyright, and once again it’s under threat.

“The pointless abrogation of independence will usher in a new colonial era in publishing. Once again Australian writers will be edited in London and read in export editions at home as they were when I was a kid. That’s just a huge and pointless step backwards…”

Thomas Keneally, veteran Australian author and ABIA presenter:

Thomas Keneally

Thomas Keneally

“The federal government proposes to do something neither the Brits nor Americans propose to do their writers: to slice Australian authors’ copyright to 15-25 years after publication. These are just some of the books of mine published more than 15 years after their first appearance (he gestures to a pile of his bestselling books). Under the new proposal, these would no longer belong to me.

“I appeal to my old republican movement friend Malcolm Turnbull. Is this fair? … I know you are a highly cultivated man and I cannot believe your government will begin its program of innovation by obliterating an industry you need for that visionary task.

“Unlike the mining industry, Australian publishing asks for no subsidy, requires no docks to be built. It has raised itself to be the 17th biggest book industry in the world. I refuse to believe that such a robust Australian as yourself wants to do away with that and make us again and forever what we were when I began to writer – a colony for other people’s minds and other people’s books.”

For more about the proposed copyright changes in Australia, see commentary from the Copyright Clearance Center’s Roy Kaufman in an interview with Publishing Perspectives.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.