A Position Paper by Simon Groth of if:book Australia
The proliferation of digital media has presented enormous challenges to writers and other creative professionals in an environment where downloading, copying, and streaming digital files can take precedence over the purchase or borrowing of physical artefacts.
My own perspective on copyright is informed primarily by my experiences as someone whose writing has appeared in print since 2000 and on the web since 1995. But it is also informed by my experience with if:book Australia, commissioning, publishing, and distributing creative work from others in a non-commercial environment.
Regardless of how it was initially conceived and for whom it was initially intended to benefit, modern copyright has evolved into a mechanism whose intention is to allow creators to benefit from original works by granting them control over it for a period of time. It means that creators of an original work can expect fair compensation and acknowledgement when their work is bought and sold, adapted, referenced, and so on.
So of course copyright is about more than a set of rules governing the ability to make copies of a given work. But the notion of the copy is absolutely central to the disruption of traditional copyright at the hands of digital media. Copyright was created with the medium of print in mind. To create a print copy of an existing work takes dedication, resources, time, and money. Copyright is an effective system in the physical world because, for an audience, the path of least resistance to obtaining a creative work is to buy it. Even with modern home scanning and printing technology, no one wants to go through the interminable process of making their own copy of anything. The payoff is not worth the effort, not when the local bookshop has good coffee and Amazon has a buy-it-now button. Under a system predicated on physical objects, readers buy books and some of that money reaches writers.
The fundamental assumptions of copyright are built from the physical world of ink and paper. But things are very different in the networked world of ones and zeros.
One in three adults and half of 18–24-year-old Australians are actively engaged in downloading movies, music, and even books: copies of creative work unauthorised by the rights holders and intended almost exclusively for personal storage and consumption. Is such unauthorised copying via the internet the same as piracy or is it something else? It is certainly a long way from the flea market stall selling dodgy DVDs. Selling unauthorised copies for a profit is clearly wrong. But if there is wrongdoing in copying itself (without a profit motive), then where is its locus: in the access to the content, in the act of copying, or in its consumption?
This, for me at least, is the essence of copyright’s digital disruption. In the digital world, making a copy has become the path of least resistance. A copyright architecture based on physical media simply cannot conceive of this reality and instead attempts to shoehorn digital content into behaving more like physical artefacts in order to fit more neatly into its own systems. Publisher imposed restrictions such as geoblocking and DRM treat the audience as criminals first and readers second. These expensive and ineffective technologies may help assuage the anxieties of “rights holders” but severely restrict the rights of the audience to access the content they have paid (or wish to pay) for.
Another concern with current copyright legislation is around the question of whom the rights are intended to benefit.
Copyright should be assumed to benefit artists, but all too often we see artists pushed aside in favour of other beneficiaries.
Who benefits when an artist’s copyright continues for fifty or seventy years after their death? Protecting artists is one thing, but protecting ‘rights holders’ who bought the copyright from the estate of the dead artist seems to be something else entirely. Is this what copyright should be about?
Our treatment of intellectual property should be based on respect for artists and audience and on striking a balance between the rights and responsibilities of those parties. The wishes of any third party should come a distant third.
if:book’s major project this year, Rumours of My Death, specifically digs through forgotten corners of Australia’s Public Domain to find authors and works that can continue inspire in 2015. The project asks three contemporary authors (myself included) to ‘collaborate’ with another writer’s work drawn from the Public Domain to create a new contemporary ‘remix’, an entirely new work that draws on its source material.
It’s an example of a new form within the literary arts that celebrates otherwise forgotten works and playfully adapts them for a contemporary audience. I fear that, in our rush to elevate the needs of rights holders above artists and audiences, we will effectively cut today’s literature off from future generations.
if:book Australia explores new forms of digital literature and investigates the changing connections between writers and readers. Since its inception in 2010, if:book Australia has published tens of thousands of words from some of the nation’s best writers and thinkers on book futures, delivered workshops from Perth to Canberra to Alice Springs, created real-world story adventures, and took a complete book from concept to print in twenty-four hours.
if:book Australia is based at the Queensland Writers Centre and linked to an international fellowship of organisations exploring book futures, including the Institute for the Future of the Book in New York and if:book UK.
if:book Australia is led by writer, editor, and reader of both pixels and ink, Simon Groth.
Simon Groth is a writer and editor of fiction and non. His books include Concentrate and Off The Record: 25 Years of Music Street Press. His first two novels were shortlisted in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards and his short fiction has been published in Australia and the United States. As director of if:book Australia, Simon writes and speaks regularly on the future of the book. He has several edited collections of fiction and non-fiction for if:book and took the role of lead writer for the 24-Hour Book project. He is currently remixing a series of short stories by nineteenth century Australian author, Marcus Clarke.