One of the more controversial sessions at the SWF was Lynn Spender’s CAL-Meanjin lecture on copyright, a presentation of an essay that appears in the latest Meanjin. I didn’t hear the lecture but in the essay Lynn discusses the Google book digitalisation project and makes what seems to me the fairly sensible point that current copyright laws simply cannot cope with the new online reality. In that context, it’s worth reading Seth Freedman’s piece in the Guardian, a fairly strident defence of the status quo. He writes:
It is no secret that the moment the music business sold its soul to the compact disc devil, the industry was in serious trouble. CDs, followed by MP3s, meant that the listening public now had access to high quality files of their favourite music, and could pirate copies at will, should their desire to save money prove more compelling than their sense of ethics.
The music industry went into near-terminal decline in the Napster years, thanks to an inability to keep control over, or make money from, the copyrighted material for which the record companies had paid through the nose. The lure of forcing consumers to “upgrade” from vinyl to CD, then from CD to MP3, was financially expedient in the short term, but in the long term was a modern-day equivalent of Dorian Gray’s fateful pact.
The publishing world is teetering on the brink of a similarly suicidal drop today. With the advent of the Kindle, along with all manner of related new royalty systems and e-publishing deals, the industry is being lured into a trap from which it might never escape – and it’s easy to see why they’re tempted. Borders’ latest financial results showed a 12% decline in revenue at its bookshops, largely due to the impact of the credit crisis, and in a climate where the public has less disposal money to spend, low-cost models such as e-book publications are seen as a natural way for publishers to ride out the economic storm.
With resistance weakening towards the concept of e-books, Amazon reported a 24% increase in earnings in the first quarter of this year, driven in no small parts by sales of its Kindle e-reader. “Kindle sales have exceeded our most optimistic expectations,” Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos declared, and with endorsements from the likes of Oprah Winfrey ringing in the ears of the book-reading public, the e-explosion looks set to continue apace, sucking in both consumers and publishers alike.
However, while in its embryonic stage there seems every reason for publishers to scramble aboard the e-book bandwagon, it won’t be long before the same pirates who ransacked the music industry will do the same to the book world. As inevitable as night following day, so too criminals flock to the site of any money-making operation, exploiting every available technological loophole to steal copyrighted material and bleed much-needed revenue from the affected industry.
Some people oppose the Kindle and its competitors on the grounds of purist, elitist snobbery, claiming that nothing compares to the touch, smell and familiarity of a printed book when it comes to reading for pleasure. But, just as the vinyl Luddites have been left to all but rot by the music industry’s wayside, so too in time will the anti-e-book establishment.
If the bulk of the consumer market is happy to embrace progress and make use of more convenient systems of reading, or listening to music, then their money will talk far louder to the salesmen than the faint complaints of those refusing to move with the times.
Those opposed to the Kindle’s inexorable march are right, but for the wrong reasons. If the publishing industry were to suffer a similar affliction as the music industry’s recent malaise, then the lack of money available to publishers would seriously stymie their ability to nurture new talent in the writing world – and that’s far more serious a problem than the format in which manuscripts are read by the consumer.
Authors, myself included, also have a responsibility to put the industry’s long-term health above short-term financial gain. E-book royalty percentages are far higher than those made from traditional books; but if the net result of the e-book transition is to mortally wound the publishing industry, then the next generation of up-and-coming writers will have no one to blame for their plight than those who came before them.
Sitting on the bus and considering the way in which I employ technology to save both effort and money when accessing text, I was aware how swiftly one can become blinded by the dazzle of short-term gain, but the onus of responsibility is on us to see past such a stance.
Until the right safeguards have been put in place by the publishing industry to protect their work (and they certainly haven’t been to date), then ushering in an e-book era could sound the death knell for the whole publishing enterprise. The lessons of recent history spell it out loud and clear, and we would all be wise not to doom ourselves to repeat them.
What’s most striking about the piece is how well it actually makes the argument about the need for a revision of copyright law. That is, even if you accept Freedman’s assessment, his prescription is entirely utopian. Essentially, he’s arguing for authors to mount a collective boycott of e-books — and everyone knows that’s simply not going to happen. Once the remaining technical problems are sold and the price of e-readers comes down, they will be part of the new reality for publishing and we’ll all have to deal with it.
Freedman’s argument also depends on an implicit trickle-down effect, in which writers need to protect the interests of publishing companies, in order that publishers might ‘nurture new talent in the writing world’. But of course publishing houses are businesses and running a business means that you direct your resources where they will make you money. There’s no necessary correlation between financial success and the nurturing of new talent.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the biggest problem in the transition to new technology is the free market itself. It’s an old story: we have now the ability to do utterly wondrous things (and, as Spender’s essay makes clear, the digitalisation of the world’s books into a searchable archive is pretty damn cool), yet the perversity of the market means that our new capabilities are just as likely to denude the culture (by impoverishing writers) as to enrich it. In response, we need to start thinking outside the narrow box of what’s currently economically possible. I’ve argued before that the crisis in the newspaper industry might require a state-run outlet for quality journalism: a newspaper equivalent (whether in print or online) of ABC radio or ABC TV. Maybe the same thing could be said about the production of literature — that we need to move to an entirely new system for supporting literary writers, one that doesn’t depend on an antiquated copyright system but instead relies on an altogether different mechanism, and thus can embrace technical possibilities rather than seeking to shut them down.