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On copyright and Australian cinema

The Meanland essay in Overland 199 is written by author, SPUNC President and Wet Ink fiction editor, Emmett Stinson. ‘The pirate code’ delves into the underbelly of copyright during the digital revolution – and comes to some surprising conclusions:

Right now publishers are abuzz with discussions of ‘book futures’ and the digital revolution, but there is still an almost complete uncertainty surrounding even the most basic issues. What, if any, devices will become standard for electronic reading? How will books be distributed? What formats will be used? A recent stand-off over pricing resulted in all of Pan Macmillan’s e-book titles being temporarily unavailable on Amazon’s website, demonstrating that the industry can’t even agree on what digital books should cost.

This uncertainty has necessarily been accompanied by a great deal of anxiety, especially given the difficulties experienced in other industries – such as music, television and film – that have entered the digital domain. As these sectors discovered, digital distribution facilitates piracy: that is, the unlawful duplication and distribution of intellectual property without due compensation to its owner.

Debates over piracy usually focus on the validity of current law, the ethics of accessing copyrighted goods illegally, or the virtues of open source, copyleft, creative commons or similar ‘free’ notions of intellectual property.1 At the heart of the argument, however, lies a purely technological issue: the nature of digital data. The chief benefit of digitised information is that it can be easily and virtually instantaneously duplicated. Ethical and legal condemnations of copyright pirates often miss this point: the pirates are simply utilising the inherent qualities of digital technology. As McKenzie Wark has aptly noted, ‘In its reproducibility, the digital is always neither theft nor property, unless the artifice of the law makes it so.’

Read the rest of Stinson’s essay.

Overland 199 also features film reviewer, Thomas Caldwell, of Cinema Autopsy fame, with ‘Some of the finest films’, a defence of Australian cinema:

Supporters of Australian cinema have had a mixed experience recently. Last year, we were able to enjoy some of the finest films that this country has produced but we also had to endure the ongoing attack upon the industry by commentators accusing Australian cinema of ‘doom and gloom’, not being escapist enough, not attracting large enough audiences and not making enough money at the box office. Such attacks are nothing new, but the disturbing recent trend was the increase in declarations that in order to ‘save’ Australian cinema it would be necessary to produce films with a more deliberate commercial appeal, to make more genre films and to cater to broader tastes. If such suggestions were embraced then Australian cinema would really be in trouble.

Part of the problem with the discussion about Australian cinema is that it has become increasingly hijacked by scrutiny of box office returns. The sustainability of local cinema is by no means an unimportant issue, but placing so much attention on film as commerce devalues cinema as an art form and therefore devalues the worth of a film. As Tom Ryan noted in the Age, Hollywood classics such as The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, Duck Soup, It’s a Wonderful Life and Blade Runner were all box office flops when initially released. Appreciation over time, not the box office returns of the day, has given these films their reputation as cinematic masterpieces. It’s time to reclaim the debate about Australian cinema and appreciate Australian films as something more than simply a source of revenue. In fact, such a shift in attitude is essential for the industry to survive.

Prevalent in the debate is the idea that Australian filmmakers are deliberately making obscure films that they don’t want anybody to see. It’s a typically conservative reaction that sees the industry as a sort of exclusive, culturally indulgent love fest that occurs at the expense of the hard-working men and women of Australia. Such attacks have predominantly come from frustrated journalists who don’t actually like cinema, film reviewers wanting to distinguish themselves as the great spokesperson for the average Australian and bitter filmmakers who (sometimes reasonably) feel hard done by. It’s a mixture of self-promotion, ‘bad boy’ journalist posturing, contrived indignation and philistine pettiness. None of it is helpful.

Read the rest of Caldwell’s essay.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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