Friday, June 26, 2009

Ben Atkinson's True History of Copyright in Australia

There aren't too many 500 page tomes on intricate matters of law that a reader would find, let's say, interesting!

There are even less that a reader would find utterly absorbing and invigorating!

Well, Sydney-based copyright scholar Ben Atkinson has written one of the best - a powerful story of how Australia ended up with its current copyright regime, a regime that Atkinson considers oppressive, burdensome, unfair, and nothing but a reflection of Australia's shameful cowering to, initially, British imperialism, and latterly, US corporate power.

Atkinson is a radical, and there is much in the book that many lawyers and content industry practitioners will find distasteful and undoubtedly naive. But his narrative is compelling and he builds a persuasive case. Every bit of detail, no matter how slight, helps build the riveting story, a story of politicians, economists, writers, name it, from big to small.

I was reminded of the aphorism that one should remain unaware of the intricacies of law making, as one should remain ignorant of the process of sausage making. Yet it's a remarkable and fascinating story.

Among Atkinson's many criticisms of the Australian copyright tradition are two that are central:

1. The prohibition on direct importation by retailers is simply a carry-over from British law originally aimed at Irish pirates, and it is antithetical to Australian interests - always was and still is today.

2. The bans on free use of parts of works for non-commercial purposes (as in our educational institutions) are a massive over-reaching by global, principally US, corporate interests, and should never have been acceded to by weak Australian politicians. CAL gets a real pasting.

Here are some samples:

'The case is significant for another reason. The reactions it provoked typified the strain of histrionic self-justification that infected the discourse of copyright proponents from the first days of publishers demanding perpetual rights. Stripped of surface glitter, the discourse often reveals something ugly: covetousness and presumption masquerading as moral right'. (p.343)

'By 2005, obtuseness and the politics of economic power determined Australian copyright policy. Policymakers, learnedly explaining the obligations of international law, obediently agreed - in the interests of the nation - to Australia's status as a tributary of the American hegemony. The greatest irony is that 100 years earlier, Australian politicians attacked with great vehemence the copyright policy of the United States, and even proposed legislation to strike at American publishers.' (p.406)

I certainly don't agree with Atkinson on all matters, but this book is a lively treatise, full of juicy bits and pieces, heroes and villains, and lots of commonsense and wisdom. The scholarship is simply inspiring. Just the fact that Atkinson exists, and belongs to a growing tradition in copyright studies in Australia (mainly based at QUT) is cause enough for celebration. The vast majority of copyright lawyers and thinkers in this country are only concerned with the mechanics, not the underlying business and economic realities. It's as if they know the scaffolding inside out, but remain ignorant of the building underneath, the whole point of it.

If you're at all interested in copyright, buy this book!

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