by Lori Flekser, Creative Content Australia — 27 May 2020
Recent news about a government staffer circulating a pirated copy of Malcolm Turnbull’s new book highlights a surprising and ironic copyright misstep by the very people we rely on to legislate and enforce copyright protections.
The Australian Publishers Association wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister, reminding him that “Copyright has been a boon to humankind for centuries. The modern world could not have been constructed without it. Without the protection of copyright, few authors could devote themselves to writing even part-time, and no publishers would turn a profit. Without copyright, it is impossible to imagine the explosion of content that we have witnessed in the fields of academic research, education and literary fiction.”
The International Publishers Association (IPA) – the world’s largest federation of national, regional and specialised book publishers’ associations – also expressed their disappointment and asked the Government to make clear their support of copyright and the intellectual property rights of all publishers, authors and creators.
The essence of the APA argument is that when this happens to one author, it happens to all authors because of the principle of copyright.
In her 2015 book Copyfight, Phillipa McGuiness argued that copyright is a “form of codified respect and the glue that holds the creative ecosystem together”. Working for the publishing arm of the University of NSW, she understood that authors licensed them to take their book to the world in print and electronic forms through long-established laws of copyright. Underlying this agreement between writer, publisher and reader is the principle that investment in the book will be respected, as will the author’s ownership of their creative work. The author is paid a royalty and, should a third party wish to transform that work into a film or TV program, a play or even an opera, the author will benefit financially.
The book grew from her belief that digital technology had changed the ecosystem that sustained this activity – not only the forms in which culture was produced, but also the ways it is consumed. And, she pointed out, “As with many things in life, money gets to the nub of it, not least because people need to make a living. I’ve used the word disconnect here, but one of the biggest disconnects is between what most artists make from their work, and what people think they earn. The average writer’s income is $13,000. Most writers aren’t JK Rowling or Kate Forsyth, just as most musicians aren’t Coldplay or Beyonce.”
In a speech in 2015, Australian author Michael Robotham said, “Over the past twenty years, I have published a lot of books and every single one of them has been stolen and pirated. Several years ago, my novel Say You’re Sorry was discounted to $2.99 as an Amazon Daily Deal, available to US readers. The promotion led to 35,000 copies being downloaded and saw me reach Number 7 on the New York Times bestseller list (combined physical and ebook list). It was exciting news, but within a week, more than 30 bit-torrent and file-sharing sites had sprung up offering this book for nothing. As quickly as I could report one, a new site opened up. Some of them had counters showing how many times the book had been downloaded and the figures ran into thousands… it’s impossible to know exactly how many sales I have lost to illegal downloads over the past decade, but my US publishers estimated it was close to 40,000 ebooks last year.”
Michael nailed the economic argument that eludes so many people who minimise the impact of their online activities. At the same time, he underscored the demoralising nature of piracy that takes the choice of monetisation out of the hands of the creators of artistic works in a way that few other professions experience.
“A painter can paint my house for nothing if he chooses. A mechanic can repair my car for free. And I can sell my books for nothing if I choose. But if I ask for payment – just as the painter does or a mechanic – I should be compensated for my labour. That is a basic principle of economics – the notion that the price of anything is determined by demand and supply and the cost of producing it. And that a worker has the right to put a price on their labour.”
The stakes are high for creators when the ability to monetise their artistic endeavours is compromised or threatened. Both the APA and IPA called on the Government to take action that might demonstrate they will not tolerate the appropriation of IP rights of Australian authors and publishers by any individuals in government.
The incident serves as a reminder that these rights can be effortlessly forgotten – accidentally or deliberately – regardless of whether you are an amateur writer, a renowned author or even a former Prime Minister.
 Phillipa McGuinness is the editor of Copyfight and the former executive publisher at NewSouth Publishing in Sydney.
 Extract from a speech Michael Robotham gave as part of the Copyright Agency Author Talks series in 2015.