16/09/2016 - 14:20

Blunt business threat to Australia’s creative legacy

16/09/2016 - 14:20


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A Productivity Commission report, and moves by giant international tech companies, could bring significant changes to Australia’s copyright laws, and we all stand to lose.

CUT: A Productivity Commission draft report has proposed a reduction in the copyright protection period from 70 years to 15. Photo: Stockphoto

A Productivity Commission report, and moves by giant international tech companies, could bring significant changes to Australia’s copyright laws, and we all stand to lose.

Imagine a world where the latest books, music and art are available to everyone at no cost; a place where access to the latest thinking, research and ideas isn’t determined by your postcode, family or education, but freely available on any connected digital device.

Think about how this could break down barriers, how the sharing of material could provoke new ideas, trigger discussions and spur innovation.

This is the utopic, meritocratic vision the big tech players such as Google and YouTube have put forward to justify a serious push to change Australia’s copyright laws.

What these technology behemoths are actually leveraging is the arm wrestle (or rather collision) between old and new media.

In the same way that social media has forever shifted the boundaries of privacy, the internet has fundamentally changed how we all access creative product.

The Google-inspired vision is seductive in its simplicity.

It’s a world where we can all share in contemporary literature, music, and art whenever we want without ever having to join a library, visit a concert hall or stroll through an art gallery.

In April this year, the US Supreme Court ruled that Google’s massive book-scanning project was not illegal after it denied an appeal from a group representing authors, which claimed it was in breach of copyright laws.

Authors have been fighting Google Books in the courts for more than a decade, but this latest ruling means individuals can now search for millions of books through Google and read extracts thanks to the ever-expanding search engine.

The court said these ‘snippets’ were not a substitute for the complete works and it was immaterial if Google made money from its search business using the books.

It’s a vexed issue because not only do the authors miss out on any remuneration for the millions of views their works get, they were never even asked permission before their work was put online.

This is what we’ve come to expect from the internet – information or images at a keystroke without any cost.

A number of high-profile Australian authors are aggressively fighting the proposed changes to the copyright laws as set out in the Productivity Commission’s draft report on Australia’s intellectual property laws.

One of the key changes proposed was a reduction in the copyright protection period from the current length of 70 years to just 15.

It’s a big change that would rob many artists of valuable royalty streams, often in the latter part of their careers

But many in the arts community also worry that businesses such as Google have the power to push for this sort of legislative change.

Copyright isn’t just about protecting the superannuation of our writers, artists or composers; it’s also a powerful, legally enshrined way to demonstrate we value creativity.

And surely this is a vital part of the innovation challenge that our prime minister talks so passionately about.

Media executive Kim Williams, who is also chair of the copyright agency, argues the changes to the copyright laws treat creative content and its producers with contempt; he is astonished by the suggestion our copyright laws stifle investment and innovation.

Working in the media, I have a foot in both camps in this argument. There are circumstances where, for story-telling purposes, I want to reproduce someone else’s work and I don’t want to break any copyright laws to do that.

By the same token I want some protection to ensure my work isn’t appropriated and passed off as someone else’s writing.

I know that in the digital space my stories get appropriated, they get barely rewritten for other websites and topped with another reporter’s name.

I also acknowledge our laws have to keep pace with changes in technology and how we share information and ideas, but I agree with Mr Williams’ argument that our copyright laws should not be radically changed – especially not at the behest of big business.

The law needs to keep pace with technology but we can’t have big tech companies driving that change.

Their argument is economic, it’s not creative, it’s not innovative and it will do little to ensure Australian stories continue to be told here and around the globe.


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