Yesterday the Productivity Commission handed to the federal government its final report on whether restrictions on importing copyrighted books, or parallel import restrictions, should be eased. These restrictions inflate the price of books by limiting competitive imports, and the beneficiaries are the local printing and publishing executives, at the expense of consumers.
The industry operates under the 30-day rule, which allows import restrictions for the life of the copyright – which means the life of the author, plus 70 years – so long as the book is made available in Australia within 30 days of being published overseas. Exemptions are provided for booksellers filling a single order and for consumers buying books directly from online retailers.
Author Peter Carey described the proposed measures as "cultural self-suicide", and others have argued they will cost jobs and reduce authors' income as well as the number of local authors published.
Their claims are baseless. When the Howard government removed import restrictions on compact discs in 1998, it was accused of gutting the music industry and jeopardising the income of musicians. But industry data shows royalties increased from $81.8million in 2003 to $108m in 2007, and the number of performers receiving royalties also increased. Meanwhile, the average price of a CD album has fallen by 32per cent.
But the most absurd claim is that easing import restrictions would water down the exclusive rights copyright confers. In a book there are two property rights: one relates to the physical book and the other to the copyright text. Import restrictions are designed to protect the former and don't affect the latter.
Copyright, on the other hand, is automatically conferred to the right holder and it is protected in all countries that are signatories to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic works. Royalties are paid to copyright holders when their works are published in those countries, based on the laws of each country. The only justification for import restrictions for copyright is to guard against counterfeit products.
Australia's parallel import restrictions may be included in the Copyright Act, but they are not a part of IP protection. They are a trade barrier disguised as IP protection.
The costs of these restrictions are borne by the least affluent Australians, who are paying higher prices for books than necessary. And that is harming education opportunities for Australia's poorest.
Rather than seeking industry protection, Australia's book industry should be focusing on how to expand the market for books by making them cheaper. It's the only sustainable way of guaranteeing their income. And consumers win, too.