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Parallel Lines

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Thursday, Feb 19, 2009

For what sounds to most like an extraordinarily arcane issue, parallel importation of books is generating a lot of concern among Australian authors.  In fact, many of them are being driven to rhetorical heights unscaled in their regular work.


In submissions to the Productivity Commission review, Kate Grenville warns about becoming an “impoverished and stunted society” and Gary Disher forecasts a loss of local flavour to “cheap mass culture from overseas”.  Matthew Reilly’s heavily underlined and italicised submission warns that parallel importation is “tantamount to legalising copyright piracy”.


What is it that has made them so worried?  What is parallel importation?


Like many English-speaking countries, Australia has copyright rules that protect the local publishing industry from cheap overseas editions.  Essentially, publishers have 30 days following international publication of a book to release a local edition, after which that edition is the only version to be sold in Australia.


There are moves afoot to remove this rule, allowing importation of books from anywhere in the world—the philosophy being that people do it via Amazon anyway and in theory it would make books cheaper.


On the other side of the debate, local authors are concerned that this will make Australian books uncompetitive price-wise with overseas works, that it will relegate local publishers to mere importers and that their books will be swamped in the market by remaindered foreign editions for which they receive no royalties.


In reality, both the promise of lower prices and the threat of local industry collapse are likely to be overstated.  Australia allowed parallel importation of CDs ten years ago and while this has led to some discounting, most new CDs are still in the range of $25-$30 (US$17-$20).  Regarding the feared consequences, Australian music is just as successful as in the 1990s, if not more so.  The rise of labels like Modular, with their global-impact roster of artists such as Cut Copy, shows how little difference the end of protectionism has had.


Making a living as an Australian writer is hard and maybe it’s about to get harder.  Perhaps the protection of the local sector has fostered any number of brilliant authors who might otherwise have given up their career for something more lucrative.  But as with too many public debates, the argument is verging on shrill.


The track record of protected cultural industries is not good.  Australia’s film industry had a taxpayer-funded golden age in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but over time fell into a rut of making mediocre films perpetuating the same national stereotypes.  Much our subsidised arts scene is irrelevant to average, or even culturally-savvy, Australians.  Australian music is in a healthy state, but this is hardly the result of years of mandatory Australian content on the radio stations that simply pick local imitators of mainstream US acts.


The fact is that there will always be a market for good books and good writers.  For generations, Australian writers have struggled with the small size of the local market, the need to connect with overseas audiences and the frequent necessity of moving overseas to chase success.  Yet authors keep coming along, telling stories people want to read and making a living (or at least a part-time wage).  To attribute all this to a single element of copyright law is simplistic.


There may be no need to fix something that isn’t broken, but I suspect that any change won’t stop Australia from giving the world exceptional writers.

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