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Parallel importation and the future of books

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I linked yesterday to Peter Carey’s excellent piece in The Age attacking the proposed changes to Australia’s copyright laws (I can see already I’m going to need to find a way to create some kind of second stream, or news-ticker to throw up links to articles and sites which I like without actually adding full-blown posts, but that’s another story). Since I’m working on a piece about some of these questions at the moment, they’re rather on my mind, but I thought it might be a good moment to link to several other pieces that have appeared recently, one about the Google Books settlement in the US, another by Jeff Sparrow, editor of Overland from yesterday’s Crikey! about the decline of the review and the third a piece from Time about the future of publishing.

At first blush, the two topics are only tangentially related. The first, parallel importation, is a story about protecting the rights of Australian authors to manage their rights within their home territory, and about protecting Australian culture. The others are about a larger, economic and cultural transformation being driven by information technology. But I can’t help thinking they’re actually connected. Sparrow’s piece, the Time piece and the Google Books piece are all about a shift away from the print culture that has existed for the last few hundred years. This was a culture which relied upon particular reading habits, and which gave birth to the dominant cultural form of the last 150 years, the novel. One part of that culture was an economic system in which publishers controlled copyright both legally and physically by controlling the distribution and reproduction of the physical object. Yet as the experience of the music industry has demonstrated, once the physical object evaporates it becomes almost impossible to continue to control reproduction. So as the print culture of the past, and its dependence on both the modes of reading that go with it and the physical object fades, isn’t it possible the debate of parallel importation may begin to look like one of those skirmishes fought on the edge of a larger conflagration?

I’m not suggesting we should give up the fight to prevent the push by Dymocks and their crony, Bob Carr, to roll back territorial copyright becoming reality (why anyone who lives in NSW would listen to the advice of Bob Carr about anything, let alone educational or cultural questions, is completely beyond me, but we won’t go there). That’s a fight that needs to be won. But I also wonder whether it should begin to be seen in a larger context, as part of a more profound shift which will ultimately make questions about the parallel importation of physical objects a relatively minor question within an almost unrecognizable information culture.

The articles mentioned above are:

Time Magazine: Books Gone Wild: The Digital Age Reshapes Literature

Crikey: The Death of the Literary Review

The New York Review of Books: Google and the Future of Books

The Australian Society of Authors also provides this set of links to various resources about the Productivity Commission Inquiry into Copyright Restrictions on the Parallel Importation of Books, and submissions to the Inquiry (which have now closed) are available on the Productivity Commission’s website. I suggest anyone who’s interested in this question spend a few moments perusing the many, many submissions from authors and publishers.

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. I know the publishing landscape is in for big changes in the next few years James, but whether the books are hard copy or electronic, I want Australian readers to know that my characters eat Tim Tams and pies, have Yum Cha on Sunday mornings and wear thongs. Because none of this happens in the US edition.

    Your blog is terrific, by the way. But I want to know this: if a crow can bend a piece of wire to reach food, why can’t I assemble an Ikea bookcase?

    January 31, 2009
  2. Hi James,

    If you haven’t already seen them, you might be interested to read some of the pieces about the parallel import debate that former John Wiley & Sons MD Peter Donoghue has written on his blog, such as http://peterdonoughue.blogspot.com/2009/01/peter-carey-goes-troppo.html , http://peterdonoughue.blogspot.com/2009/01/whats-wrong-with-abas-77-compromise.html, http://peterdonoughue.blogspot.com/2009/01/aba-stabs-itself-in-front-amazing.html , etc.

    I can’t say I necessarily agree with him, but his arguments are passionate and thought-provoking.

    Keeping track of all the conversations that are going on is a huge challenge: I’ve been using delicious.com to bookmark things as I come across them (http://delicious.com/Tim_Coronel) and I’ve set up a Google Reader feed from any site I check regularly — I expect you oculd embed both into a Blogger blog …

    cheers, Tim Coronel
    publisher, Bookseller+Publisher magazine

    February 2, 2009
  3. cassandra jose #

    I am so sick of hearing my children talking in American accents and quoting verbatim from the crass one liner/canned laughter shows we are fed.

    Globalisation (Americanisation) of culture will be come complete, i believe, once books, the last conclave of media authenticity is destroyed. We allow economics a high place in the scheme of things, because of the inviolable rules it quotes to justify why certain things, like parallel importation. It’s worth remembering that such economic axioms are recent inventions of men. Its not like they came down from the mount on tablets of clay. Why can’t Australia recognise the value of its own creative scene and preserve it in the face of global and network onslaught?

    Personally, I think I will scream if I have to ever read yet another book about a priviledged upwardly mobile hero/ine living in Manhattan, drinking Starbucks and suffering angst because life is not fulfilling enough!

    August 28, 2009

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. A short note on parallel importation « The Book is Dead
  2. Productivity Commission Report on Parallel Importation released « city of tongues

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