HOW LONG SHOULD COPYRIGHT LAST?
At the moment in Australia, it lasts for 70 years after an author dies, which I will agree seems a tad excessive.
There is apparently something called “the Productivity Commission” in Australia, which is looking into the intellectual property rights system for the Commonwealth Government. Unfortunately, it appears to be leaning towards a recommendation that creators really don’t need rights to their own work after 15 years (or possibly 25 years)*. It also quotes the finding that “the commercial life of most works is less than 5 years”, which might be true for some, but which I would absolutely dispute as far as I am concerned.
LET’S GET PERSONAL
Let’s put that in perspective as far as one writer is concerned, namely: me.
For my first published book, HAVENSTAR, I signed a contract in 1997 for the princely advance of about $AU 7,000. Sounds nice, doesn’t it, but you know what? I was paid that amount over the two years after signing the contract in 1997. That particular publisher never paid anything more. Not much to live on, is it?
Fortunately, in 1999, I sold the same book to a German publisher for 3,500 Euros. And then a Russian publisher bought it for $US1,000.
Many years later, an Australian publisher paid a small advance to re-publish HAVENSTAR, is still selling it and is now paying me royalties. And I’ve brought it out as an eBook as well, so that novel is earning me money that way too. Not much, but every little helps.
WHAT WOULD 15 YEARS COPYRIGHT DURATION MEAN TO ME?
HAVENSTAR was first published 17 years ago. The Productivity Commission appears to indicate that anything more than 15 yrs copyright is excessive, that after 15 years a book should be up there for grabs by anyone who wants to sell it in whatever form they like without me getting a cent or having any say in anything about its production. Nice.
What does it matter, you may ask. After all, it’s only earning me a few hundred dollars a year.
But that’s the whole point. Very, very few writers actually make a living from one book. When we finish one, we start another. And another after that. Finally we might earn enough to live on, obtained in dribs and drabs from all our books combined. A book of mine published in 2009 is earning more for me this year than the book published just over a year ago. So much for the idea that books are economically defunct after 5 years.
After twelve years of being a published writer, I actually started to earn enough from my writing to support myself in 2010. Not enough for an average family of four, mind, but enough for me.
Another couple of years after that, I could have supported my husband too by my writing, if necessary. I was able to get by without my day job, which was just as well as I was ageing and the work was physically too taxing. I even earned enough to actually pay a little tax. Success!
And the reason I was earning that much? Because I had published a number of books. And each of those books (now up to 13 of them) is STILL giving me an income.
The Commission hints that if it had its way, then I’d have already lost automatic copyright to Havenstar. In 2018 I’d lose those rights to my second book. In 2019, another book would fall into public domain. And so on, every year, one book less to earn me money unless I publish it myself — in competition with anyone who wanted to do the same without paying me a cent.
Okay, so you might say: go write some more books.
But I am also now 71 years old. I have physical issues that make sitting at a computer pounding the keys for hour after hour difficult. My concentration is not what it was either.
I’m slowing down.
I don’t even know if I can publish my next book in the traditional way. I don’t have a contract. And since my agent died, there is no one working to sell it, either.
I can tell you what will happen to my commercial productivity if the Productivity Commission gets its way on a 15 year copyright: I’ll be on the Old Age Pension instead of supporting myself. Perhaps the Commissioners can comfort themselves with the thought that their personal taxes will help pay for my pension.
*Draft Finding 4.2
(on p29 of draft report):
“While hard to pinpoint an optimal copyright term, a more reasonable estimate would be closer to 15 to 25 years after creation, considerably less than 70 years after death.”
Draft Recommendation 5.2
(onpage 30 of draft report):
“The Australian Government should repeal parallel import restrictions for books in order for the reform to take effect no later than the end of 2017.”
If you want to find out more about this, here are some links:
What Jackie French has to say: