Will Abolishing Parallel Import Restrictions Destroy Your Job?

A post by ABDA member W.H. Chong


(Disclaimer: all political conclusions are my own and do not represent ABDA.)



The hottest topic in Australian book publishing is territorial copyright (aka ‘parallel import restrictions’, or PIR). Since 1991, when territorial copyright was put in place, Australia has punched way above its weight: we are now the 14th-largest book publishing industry in the world, operating without any subsidies.

That copyright protection for Australian writers and publishers may be abolished by the end of 2017. When this happened in NZ, it was a spectacular disaster. One publisher states it has lost three quarters of its staff. (The US, UK, Canada and much of Europe maintain territorial copyright.)

The foggy term obscuring the discussion is parallel import restrictions. The body recommending we do away with territorial copyright is called the Productivity Commission, and the federal government has promised to implement the recommendations. (The 600-page draft report; see chapters 4 and 5.)

As comedian John Oliver has brilliantly explained, ‘If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.’ (From 9:50.) The language of the Productivity Commission’s report is indigestible and misdirecting—books are referred to as ‘cultural externalities’.

So don’t forget! When people say ‘PIR, or parallel import restrictions on books’, they’re talking about territorial copyright. A better name for this entire discussion (as per John Oliver) might be: ‘Stop the Government from Destroying Australian Literature.’

You can find lots of information and opinions on this, so which source should you believe? A nicely simplified explanation is at change.org, where you can also sign a petition to maintain the status quo on territorial copyright. Or read my summary below.



The three pertinent points:
i) copyright protection for authors
ii) ‘fair use’
iii) territorial copyright for publishers

i) Author copyright

An ambit claim in the Productivity Commission’s draft report is to reduce the period of time an author can claim copyright to their work from 70 years after their death to 15–25 years after a work’s creation. As Tom Keneally makes plain:

The federal government proposes to do something neither the Brits nor Americans propose to do to their writers: to slice Australian authors’ copyright to 15–25 years after publication … some of [my] books [were] published more than 15 years [ago]. Under the new proposal, these would no longer belong to me.

Australia has signed an international agreement on copyright that means this recommendation cannot be implemented. But it shows how far the Commission wants to go.

ii) ‘Fair use’

The Australian system in place is called ‘fair dealing’. It allows for use of copyright material for review, research, satire, reporting or legal proceedings. The report recommends changing it to a US-style ‘fair use’ exception. It is hard to know why this has been suggested, as it would swap a term that is understood and clear for its opposite. In 40 years of case law US courts still disagree on how ‘fair use’ applies.

ii) Territorial copyright

The case for removing territorial copyright (or, ‘to abolish parallel import restrictions on books’) relies on the idea that it will make books cheaper for consumers. Not only is there no proof for this claim, there is evidence that since 2008 the average selling price of printed books in Australia has fallen by at least 25 per cent, as Text Publishing’s Michael Heyward explains. Henry Rosenbloom of Scribe says:

There has been no analysis that I’m aware of which compares current Australian book prices with like-for-like editions in other English-language markets. The only price comparisons that I’ve heard of are several years old, when the Australian dollar was much higher relative to the US dollar and the British pound. This is a highly significant omission, both by a usually hostile media, and by the proponents of the abolition of PIRs. The reason for this is simple: it is an inconvenient truth that, currently, Australian book prices are not high. Astonishingly, this means that the core problem for which the abolition of PIRS is proposed as a solution is either non-existent, or, at best, has not been proved.

Consumers can already buy whatever books they like online from overseas, GST-free and often with free postage. So the entire price argument for consumers is groundless.



Worse case: you’re out of a job.
Next worse: you will soon be out of a job.
Best case: you will be fighting for your job against others out of a job.

As we all know, there has recently been a lot of shaking up of the industry. If territorial copyright is abolished, you can expect worse. In the Guardian, Michael Heyward wrote:

If PIRs [ie territorial copyright] are removed…our writers and publishers [will] struggle to compete against their counterparts in Britain and the US, where [copyright protections] remain firmly in place. Income will be transferred from Australian creators and producers to foreign distributors, who can dump low, or zero-royalty foreign editions of their books.

If we lose territorial copyright, locally made books—edited, designed, printed and marketed here—will be competing against overseas editions.

For authors it means their royalties will be slashed; if the books are dumped here as remainder stock, authors will receive no royalties. For local publishers, there will be no return at all. Because there is no protection, publishers will start cutting back on their publishing lists. With progressively fewer books published, there will be ongoing job losses. The book industry could shrink back to the state it was in only a few decades ago, when Australia was a dumping ground for books from the UK and US.

At the ABIAs, the Shadow Minister for the Arts put it like this:

I want to be direct: nothing I’ve seen…has in any way persuaded me of the need for change. To the contrary, we’ve seen directly the New Zealand experience of what follows from the removal of PIR, and I don’t think I have to remind anyone in this room of what that experience has been.

At the 22 June hearing on the draft report, HarperCollins Australia’s CEO, James Kellow, ‘warned contraction would almost certainly follow the axing of import restrictions. Where HarperCollins New Zealand once employed 40 people and published 45 books a year, it now employs nine people and publishes between 15 and 20 books annually.’



This issue is driven by ideology and politics, and politics is the only answer. The federal election takes place on 2 July. Should the government be returned, this battle will be fought in the senate.

Here is what we know: the current government has said it will implement the recommendations, which will abolish territorial copyright. The opposition is broadly sympathetic to the status quo, as in the Shadow Minister’s remarks above, pending the final report. The Greens support maintaining territorial copyright. The new Nick Xenophon Team is pro-Australian-made products, but has not released any statement. However, its base is in South Australia, where local printer Griffin Press is a significant employer.

This is a survival issue for everyone who works in publishing or who cares about books. We have created the world’s 14th-largest book publishing industry. We can build on that…or we can be decimated. Your vote will really count on 2 July.

More information: bookscreateaustralia.com.au




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