Those who have dipped their toes into the chilly waters of ebook purchasing have likely done so through an international portal like Amazon. But when you buy an ebook from Amazon, where is your money going? Are you buying that book from an Australian publisher? Or is it going to a big American or British company? And why is it that your mate in the States can buy a copy of Mockingjay from the Kindle store but you can’t? The answer is territorial copyright and parallel importation restrictions.
For those who have no idea what those two phrases mean, allow me to quickly explain. Territorial copyright is the legal licence sold by the owner of a copyrighted work (in this case, the author of a book) to a publisher so that they can reproduce that work for sale in a particular territory. Parallel importation restrictions are the laws that force Australian booksellers to sell the Australian version of a book where it is available (to stop them from importing cheaper versions of the same book from overseas and cutting out Australian publishers). However, this protection of Australian publishers is not absolute. The rule that governs parallel importation in Australia is known as the 30 day rule, which essentially means that so long as an Australian publisher gets a book printed and available for sale within 30 days of its publication overseas, Australian booksellers can only buy the Australian version.
There is another loophole in the parallel importation rules, and that is for single copies of books. Booksellers are allowed to import a single copy of a particular book for a customer, and individuals are allowed to import their own single copies of books from overseas (from stores like Amazon).
So what does this mean for ebooks? At the moment, every copy of an ebook sold is sold as a ‘single copy’. Nonetheless, every major ebook retailer respects parallel importation restrictions and does not allow the sale of ebooks to Australia unless the publisher who is providing the file to the retailer has explicit rights to sell that ebook in Australia. Is this a legal requirement of our parallel importation restrictions? Well, at the moment, nobody is sure. That’s why ebook retailers are playing it safe and keeping Australian publishers happy.
So we’ve ended up in a bizarre situation. I can buy a copy of any book I like from any publisher I like anywhere in the world and have it posted to me here in Australia. But ebooks? No. I can only get a copy of an ebook that has been explicitly produced and given to an ebook vendor by an Australian publisher (unless the overseas publisher owns worldwide digital rights – quite a rare situation). Is this crazy? Yes. Is it fair? Probably not. But the solution? Unsurprisingly, it is not going to be a cakewalk. Tune in to the next blog, folks, and I’ll see if I can make sense of why this is happening and what cleverer people than me think might be done to sort it out.