In my last post I wrote about the issues facing ebook distribution in Australia as it pertains to territorial copyright and parallel importation. To recap: the current situation is that if I want to buy an ebook that is published by a US or UK publisher in Australia it is more than likely impossible. I can buy the Australian version of that ebook where it is available, but I cannot (except in the very rare case where the overseas publisher owns worldwide digital rights) buy the overseas version, even when that ebook is not published electronically by an Australian publisher. Even when the ebook’s Australian rights have not been purchased at all, it is still more than likely impossible to buy that book in Australia. This all despite the fact that I can buy any paper book from any publisher anywhere in the world and have it posted to my front door.
It’s a very complicated issue that faces all publishers worldwide. In fact, it is an ongoing issue with all producers of digital content. Digital TV streamed overseas through services like Hulu and the BBC’s iPlayer are not available in Australia at any cost. Music services like Spotify and Pandora are also not available here due to territorial copyright restrictions. There is no obvious solution to this problem, but in this post I’ll cover some of the reasons why this occurs.
The main reason ebook availability is so patchy at the moment is time. When Amazon (the biggest seller of ebooks in the world, and the first mainstream ebook retailer to enter the market in this country) first made the Kindle available to Australians in November 2009, they had not approached any Australian publishers to organise the distribution of ebook files and organise sales contracts. They did not, in fact, begin speaking to Australian publishers about terms until well into 2010. Concurrently, Amazon’s agreements with US publishers specified what copyright territories they were allowed to sell to – and most of these did not include Australia. Amazon decided not to mess with territorial copyright law (which, as I pointed out in the last post, are a legal grey area when it comes to ebooks) and honoured territorial copyright.
For the most part, that problem has now been fixed, but there was a massive delay in distribution that is still being felt by consumers looking to buy the newest releases for their Kindle or other ereaders even now. Given time, many ebooks that were not available at the launch of your favourite ebook reader or are not available straight after the print release date will eventually be sorted. The same goes for older backlist titles that have not yet had their rights cleared to be published in electronic form in Australia. This is a massive administrative and legal issue that most publishers around the world are slowly and surely dealing with, and it’s not something unique to Australia. Given time and resources, publishers the world over will sort it out and a greater range of titles will be available to everyone.
Having said that, this problem is representative of a larger issue. Why should Australian publishers be scrambling to get territory-specific rights to ebooks and inefficiently doubling (or tripling, or quadrupling) the workload when virtually identical ebook files are being created by their counterparts in the UK and US and they are all being sold from the same international retailer? You can kind of understand how it can be more efficient for publishers to print books in the country they sell them to, and you can understand why Australian publishers would look after the ebook files of Australian authors, but for identical electronic files to be produced and supplied separately to the exact same international retailers? It’s madness.
So why is it happening, and how can the industry as a whole move towards a more global system? And perhaps more importantly, should they? The answers to those questions essentially boil down to the same issue. Australia’s publishing industry is protected by the government with the enforcement of parallel importation restrictions; these restrictions enable Australian publishers to print more books locally, giving jobs to editors, printers, publicists, sales representatives, typesetters and, of course, authors. If we are moving towards a system in which a significant proportion of the books sold are electronic, and we give up on that protection of the industry, it will inevitably shrink. If Australian publishers make less money, they will likely publish fewer Australian authors, and fewer Australians will be employed in the publishing industry as a whole.
As a person employed by the publishing industry, my bias is for protection. Nonetheless, I do think consumers have a point when they complain that the US Kindle store has almost twice as much content as the Australian store – a restriction that is purely about protecting revenue streams rather than technical limitations. So if we assume that publishers are going to continue to protect these revenue streams, and that the current system will, for the most part, function as it is – what can be done to make it fairer for ebook readers?
Join me in the thrilling conclusion of this series of posts about ebooks and the fascinating world of territorial copyright, as I uncover some of the potential (and partial) solutions to this problem.