Why the Productivity Commission Report Matters More Than You Think

The Productivity Commission Report Matters More Than You ThinkI’ve seen a bit written about the recent draft report from the Productivity Commission over the past couple of weeks. I’m sure you have too. Some pretty famous names have decried the recommendation that copyright in Australia should be limited to 15 or 25 years instead of lasting 70 years beyond the death of the author. I’ve heard others claim the report is a thought bubble with no power to reframe copyright law, no matter how much the Commissioners think it’s a jolly good idea.

I’m not a lawyer, but I am a writer. And I think the most damning thing in the draft report is the mindset that seeps out from between the lines.

Take this, for example:

”Few, if any, creators are motivated by the promise of financial returns long after death, particularly when the commercial life of most works is less than 5 years.” p. 17

The text itself shows an appalling lack of understanding about modern publishing. They are saying that, as a writer, your work has no commercial value after five years.

Maybe in the traditional publishing model this was true for many books. But if the copyright laws are changed, they will be changed for all books — not just those fallen out of print. Big business can expect to make big bucks from their handful of bestsellers, and they won’t be obliged to pay the author a cent.

But books don’t need to be in print to sell anymore. They haven’t for years. Many authors I know have taken to self-publishing their books once the rights revert to them. Authors can build a modest but steady income stream by selling their back catalogue as ebooks on Amazon and the like.

Still, if you think the text is bad, the subtext is worse.

Writers don’t do it for money.

It’s a mindset that portrays writing as the folly of feckless flibbertigibbets. Not real work.

For the past few months I’ve seen figures floating around from various surveys. The consensus is that the average annual income Australian authors receive from their writing is less than $13,000.

The mentality of the commission seems to be that creators can’t be motivated by money, given they earn so little, so it’s okay to unilaterally rob them of any chance of future financial reward for their toil. It’s the same mentality that sees nothing wrong in demanding free labour from interns, or expecting writers to work for that mythical currency — exposure.

It presumes people willing to work for nothing don’t want payment. It ignores the reality that working for nothing is sometimes a necessary hardship on the road to actually making a living.

This mindset oozes from the pages of the draft report. It’s about a power imbalance. The haves and the have-nots. The pervasiveness of privilege, and the inability or unwillingness of those with it to recognise the unfairness of a system stacked in their favour.

Here is what the draft report says about the current copyright regime:

“Australia’s copyright arrangements are weighed too heavily in favour of copyright owners, to the detriment of the long-term interests of both consumers and intermediate users.” p. 16

Just let that sink in for a moment. With one line they call into question the very principle that you should own what you create. That when you make something, that thing is rightfully yours.

In case you’re wondering who these intermediate users are, they’re the companies and corporations who stand to gain from all this. Publishers. Sellers. Movie studios. Anybody who could squeeze a bit more profit from your work if they didn’t have to pay you for the privilege. The Commission recommends we help them out by stripping you of the ownership of your words.

This notion of who owns the product of your labour lies at the heart of capitalism. But let’s face it, the Commission’s attitude predates capitalism. You can see the same thing in feudalism, where the local nobleman expected tenants to pay rent to live in their own houses and work the land that had been in their families for generations. All because somebody’s great granddaddy was a dab hand with a battle axe. Those with power are often cold towards those without.

Why it matters

Why do I think this is so important, this mindset that devalues the creative work of individuals in favour of the financial gain of companies? Because I’ve seen it before. I know how the story ends.

Leading up to the 1996 election, John Howard made speeches to the effect that science should be funded by the industries that benefit from research. Quite apart from mistaking science for technology, this mantra showed the same mindset — that the individuals who do the thinking and creating are unimportant compared to the balance sheets of multinational corporations.

The result was a mass exodus of scientists. Either from the country, or from the profession. Our once world-leading research into solar energy was defunded in favour of the oxymoronic clean coal. Today we face a similar attack on science. The Climate Commission was abolished. CSIRO suffers crippling rounds of cuts and redundancies. In their place we have a Commissioner paid to oversee an ideological witch hunt against wind farms. All to prop up the profits of the coal industry.

Are you seeing a pattern? Because I am.

In the past year we’ve had a re-structure of the Australia Council for the Arts, coinciding with massive budget cuts. Then there are the ongoing efforts to remove the parallel import restrictions that currently prevent international publishers from dumping cheap books onto the local market. (It’s worth pointing out that authors receive less in royalties from overseas publishing deals than for the same book published in Australia.) And only this past week the defunding of 65 arts organisations, including the literary journal Meanjin.

These events are the product of a particular world view. A mindset that is stamped on every page of the Productivity Commission’s draft report. The people wielding the pens that sign thought bubbles into law don’t care about writers. Their disdain for creators is palpable.

But they govern with the consent of the governed. If you think writers should own their words, say so. You have until June 3rd 2016.

Make a submission to the Productivity Commission.