Australian Gov’t Proposes a Economically-Justified Reduction in the Copyright Term; Authors Protest
Before, publishers were protesting the recommended lifting of trade barriers on book imports, and now authors are objecting to a proposed reduction in the copyright term.
The Productivity Commission found in the draft report it released last month that when it comes to copyright, shorter was better.
While hard to pinpoint an optimal copyright term, a more reasonable estimate would be closer to 15 to 25 years after creation; considerably less than 70 years after death.
Naturally authors disagree.
Business Insider quotes author Richard Flanagan’s fact-free emotional tirade against the proposed term reduction:
“It may seem at the moment that the only thing that will save the Australian book industry is moving every publisher and writer into Christopher Pyne’s electorate, and making them all wear hi-vis jackets and safety helmets,” Flanagan began his address.
“The Abbott and now Turnbull governments’ record drips with a contempt for writers and writing that leaves me in despair. They want to thieve our past work, and, by ending parallel importation restrictions and territorial copyright, destroy any future for Australian writers.”
Flanagan’s tirade against the the Coalition was unrelenting in its savagery. He follows other prominent authors, including Tim Winton and Tom Keneally, and the Copyright Agency speaking out against proposed changes to the Copyright right.
There was no more substance to his diatribe than the average The Authors Guild screed against Amazon, and frankly, the facts simply do not support his position. There’s a strong argument that the benefits of reducing the copyright term far outweigh the costs.
But first, it’s worth pointing out that international treaties like the Berne Convention and the TPP have rendered this discussion moot. There’s simply no way for Australia to really reduce its copyright term, so this is less political debate than a theoretical discussion.
With that in mind, the Productivity Commission has a point.
The original justification for copyright, before corporations got greedy, was to provide a financial incentive to creators to make more works so that society as a whole can benefit when those works fall into the public domain.
Recognizing the need to balance the needs of creators with that of the public enables us to define the term "optimal copyright term". If you’ve been following copyright debate for long enough, you know that this is the length of time which enables creators to gather the majority of the economic value while minimizing the harm done to the public by the copyright monopoly blocking them from using the work.
What harm is done to the public, you ask?
As Nina put it, copyright can be viewed as a type of brain damage as applied to our shared culture.
An optimal copyright term would minimize the damage while maximizing the benefit to creators.
This is a point that economists have been debating for a couple decades now (if not longer), and while you can’t get them all to agree on a specific copyright term the general consensus is that death plus 70 years is to long. 99% of works have no value by that point, and the only parties that benefit are the corporations which control vast catalogs of works of negligible economic value.
I know that is going to make corporations howl, but according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics there’s solid data to back up the argument. Their stats show that most works make most of their revenue in the first few years:
- the average commercial life of music is between 2 and 5 years. Around 70 per cent of musical originals provide a return in the first 2 years, with the remaining 30 per cent providing a return fairly evenly over the next 3 years
- literary works provide returns for between 1.4 and 5 years on average. Three quarters of original titles are retired after a year and by 2 years, 90 per cent of originals are out of print
- most original visual artistic works have finished yielding an income within 2 years, but the distribution is highly skewed and a small proportion of works receive income over a longer period. These works represent the majority of income received
- the average commercial life of film is between 3.3 and 6 years. This estimate is benchmarked against similar international markets including the United Kingdom, Europe and the US. Very few films make money in their sixth year (ABS 2015b).
As I wrote earlier in this post, the facts are on the side of reducing the term of copyright to a more reasonable length of time, perhaps letting the public live long enough to see works created during their lifetime go into the public domain.
Alas, the bribe money is not on the side of a shorter copyright term, which is why the copyright term is extended again and again.