Proposed changes to laws surround book copyright in Australia are controversial, but even leaving aside their potential impact on local writers, it's not at all clear that major savings will occur.
The release this week of a report from the Productivity Commission recommending that parallel import restrictions (PIRs) on books be removed has fired up fierce arguments. Parallel import rules mean that it's not legal to import copies of books from overseas if copies are produced locally within 30 days of overseas publication. Changing them would mean that large chains could "parallel import" books from overseas and potentially sell them at a cheaper price than the ones produced by local publishers.
The pro-case — cheaper books for consumers — is pretty easy to make. The anti-case is essentially that the changes will substantially reduce the profitability of local publishers, making it harder for them to support and nurture local authors.
What's interesting, though, is that the Productivity Commission report itself doesn't provide much direct evidence that eliminating territorial copyright will result in prices dropping. This is its carefully qualified statement:
The Commission concludes that the PIRs place upward pressure on book prices and that, at times, the price effect is likely to be substantial.
In other words, no-one actually seems to know whether prices really will fall. Author Nick Earls makes the point well in an opinion piece for the ABC:
The fact is that some books are cheaper in Australia, some are more expensive and some cost around the same as elsewhere, and prices vary from book to book, time to time, retailer to retailer and with changes in the exchange rate. Either side in this argument can cherry pick individual books - and times with exchange rates that favour their case - and wave them in the air in order to make their point, but it doesn't prove a point about an entire industry.
In the case of bestsellers, a change in the rules might well mean that you'll be able to pick up a bargain-priced copy. But as a quick visit to Big W or K-Mart will attest, you can already do that now in most cases. For rarer titles, it might well be possible to get them cheaper online from overseas, but that's not forbidden under the current rules either if there's no locally-published version available.
In any event, despite the ongoing arguments, nothing will change in a hurry. The Productivity Commission has recommended a three-year notice period before changing the rules, so even assuming its ideas are taken up, it will be 2012 before any of us can measure the difference.
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