Books. Demonising the Productivity Commission distracts from what’s needed now

The bill would make it simpler and fairer for the print disabled to be able to access books, and thereby help do our bit to end the book famine. Photo: Tanya LakeKim Williams’ speech at the Melbourne Press Club this week is the latest tirade against copyright reform. It’s striking to observe such acid being spat at a Productivity Commission inquiry that isn’t even finished. Modernising copyright’s creaking 100-year-old structure with exceptions suited to our current environment – yes, including fair use – is really important, but there will be time to debate that when we have the report. Right now, the focus should be on moving forward with legislation to fix copyright’s most egregious and indefensible failures.
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On September 30, global copyright rules will finally recognise the right of visually disabled people to have equal access to the world’s culture. On that day, the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired, or otherwise Print Disabled will come into effect. It’s important because, in a world filled with a bounty of words, the vision impaired are in famine. Worldwide, they can access less than 5 per cent of titles. The Marrakesh Treaty is an important step towards removing copyright barriers to the global sharing of accessible books. Australia is a signatory, but we now need to actually pass the copyright reforms that will give effect to that commitment.

In Australia, copyright is a problem for people with a visual or other disability that prevents them reading books in the usual way. They do not have any general right to make the copies they may need to in an accessible format. Organisations that help people with disabilities have to rely on a statutory licence with detailed, bureaucratic rules, which means already scarce resources must be wasted on compliance. Publishers do not have to supply digital files for people with print disability, and when they do, restrictive terms and conditions are often attached.

The Government has a draft bill to fix this, developed with an unusual degree of cooperation and consensus last year. It’s already been the subject of wide consultation with relevant stakeholders. The bill would make it simpler and fairer for the print disabled to be able to access books, and thereby help do our bit to end the book famine.

The bill would also fix a decade-old drafting error. The 2004 free trade agreement with the US that expanded protections for copyright owners was also meant to bring some countervailing online “safe harbours”: giving copyright owners simple systems for takedown of online infringements, and granting legal protections to service providers who cooperate. In many countries, including throughout the EU and the US, these protections extend to all online service providers, and have been instrumental to the emergence of companies such as Dropbox, Facebook, eBay and Twitter.

In Australia however, an unfortunate drafting error means only Telstra, Optus and other ISPs currently have this protection. Australian schools, universities, libraries, airports, cafes, tech companies, cloud storage providers and others are exposed to unintended and uncertain liability for any infringements their users commit. That makes them relatively less competitive. It makes no sense to disadvantage our local service providers and public sector this way. It’s an obvious problem with an obvious fix, and the Turnbull government’s draft bill will finally do the job.

It would fix other ridiculous copyright rules, too. Did you know that copyright in Australia can last forever? Unlike most other countries, Australia doesn’t start the clock running on copyright term until a work is published by its owner. But much of our early cultural heritage – letters, maps, diaries and so on – is unpublished, and in many cases we don’t even know who now holds the rights to change that, owing to the passage of time.

Our cultural bodies, custodians of decaying mountains of paper, film and tape, are prevented from making our shared history widely available to the public or even researchers. It’s so ridiculous that last year it prompted the country’s librarians to engage in mass (very) civil disobedience (check out #cookingforcopyright). The draft bill would give unpublished works the same terms as published ones. This would instantaneously rescue from permanent oblivion millions of treasures: including a recipe for carrot marmalade sent to Captain Cook for the prevention of scurvy.

There’s lots of other good, sensible, progressive reform in the bill as well. It would simplify our complex educational licensing requirements, enabling teachers to spend more time with students and less filling out burdensome surveys. And no longer would libraries be prevented from making preservation copies of works until after they’ve been lost or stolen!

So enough of the vitriol. Stop tilting at the shadows of future debates. Cooperation between copyright owners, libraries and educational institutions has a sensible draft bill to the point where it is ready to go to Parliament. On September 30 when Marrakesh comes into effect, let’s be ready to help end the global book famine, make things better for Australian schools and teachers, libraries, universities and business. And then let’s talk about what to do next.

Kimberlee Weatherall is associate professor in the law faculty at Sydney University. Dr Rebecca Giblin is senior lecturer in law at Monash University. Associate Professor Weatherall and Dr Giblin also sit on the Board of the Australian Digital Alliance, a non-profit organisation advocating for fair and sensible copyright laws on behalf of cultural organisations, schools, universities, libraries, technology companies, disability rights bodies and cultural organisations.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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