The real meaning of the new 14/14 importation protocol agreed to this week by Australian publishers and booksellers is not the significant reduction in the time period granted rights holders to gain exclusivity, but the fact that the trade as a whole has so explicitly walked away from the 30/90 day legal provisions in the Copyright Act.
It's been less than three years since the trade universally declared its religious adherence to these Parallel Importation Restrictions. They were aggressively touted as the very foundation of Australia's vigorous, successful, culturally important book industry. Had the government adopted the Productivity Commission's recommendation to abolish them Australian publishing would collapse. The market would be swamped by cheap imports; our local stories would cease to be told.
Now the trade has admitted these loud proclamations of doom were a complete nonsense. And it's no defence to say that the 14/14 agreement will act in exactly the same way. No-one will be counting. No-one has ever counted. The walk-away from the PIRs embedded formally in the Act means that, finally, the trade has moved beyond any notion of binding PIRs full stop. The long and tedious debate that has bedevilled the industry for so long is finally over.
It should now be easier for all players to recognise what have been the real facts of importation and rights-acquisition all along: that exclusivity is granted by contract and contract alone. And it is maintained by operational and competitive excellence. The fiction that the PIRs formally granted territorial copyright, rather than simply prevented booksellers from buying around, has finally been blown away.
Australia has now become, for all intents and purposes, an 'open market'. But an open market with a clear Australian definition: exclusive by contract but not by legislation. It will not be, as too many UK publishers and their colonial sympathisers have long assumed, a non-exclusive market for 'competing editions'. By virtue of our distance, population size and book trade infrastructure, there will always be one Australian rights holder, and that publisher will protect its exclusivity by reasonable pricing, professional servicing, and fair trading terms. Booksellers will order from them as a matter of course and default.
The 14/14 day push by the ABA has been far more successful than anybody could have anticipated. The booksellers have ended the PIR regime by stealth, not by aggressive lobbying for legal abolition, which they were loathe to do anyway, and which has proved to be unsuccessful for so long. They deserve to be congratulated.