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Licensing body Copyright Agency Limited has lasting value 

IN recent weeks there has been considerable discussion about the Copyright Agency Limited and its processes in this newspaper and on various online forums.

This discussion, kicked off by HES editor Luke Slattery's report "Copyright staff get more than they give to authors and artists" (The Australian, February 18), has focused on the question of CAL's distribution model and more particularly the question of whether author members are well-served by that model.

Much of this discussion has been based on a misunderstanding of CAL's distribution model. Although it is true that CAL distributed only $9.1 million directly to authors and artists in 2008-09, focusing on this figure overlooks the fact CAL also distributed $75.9m to publishers, much of which was then passed on to authors and artists under individual contractual arrangements.

This amount was further supplemented by CAL's cultural fund, which invests more than $1m annually in projects specifically designed to promote the development and dissemination of Australian writing and to develop new markets in Australia and overseas.

Although it has served rights-holders well for many years, this system of direct and indirect payment is a legacy of a much less sophisticated publishing environment, which is why CAL is in the process of implementing a new distribution system, CALdirect.

Developed in consultation with the Australian Society of Authors and the Australian Publishers Association, CALdirect is designed to remove any uncertainty by ensuring all rights-holders are paid directly on the terms agreed privately between them.

The issue of how well CAL serves rights-holders - and authors and artists in particular - is a vital one. But it also tends to overshadow the integral role CAL plays in underpinning the capacity of Australia's cultural and knowledge industries to meet the dual challenge of ensuring not just that we continue to invest in the development of new and innovative content but that we guarantee the widest possible access to it.

To understand the intricacies of this role it is probably worth revisiting the question of what CAL does. Because our membership is comprised of rights-holders, discussion about CAL tends to focus on the issue that concerns them most: payment.

But that is only half the story. It makes more sense to look at CAL as providing a bridge between rights-holders and users. Without CAL and the licences we administer, users - educational institutions, government agencies and corporate organisations, to name just a few - would be required to seek permission every time they reproduced copyright material or run the risk of legal action for copyright infringement.

Under our licences that problem is eliminated. Instead of having to track down individual rights-holders every time they want to reproduce copyright material, users are free to use copyright material as they see fit, while rights-holders are compensated for that use by CAL payments.

The utility of the service CAL provides is demonstrated by the sheer volume of work reproduced under our licences. In 2008-09, users photocopied, reproduced or distributed more than two billion pages of copyright material.

Nor, despite the amount of copying, are licence fees onerous. This year state governments will pay a mere $16 for each primary and secondary school student and Australian universities will pay about $40 a student.

The origins of CAL and its licences lie in an age of physical books and photocopiers. But while the technology has changed, the issues have not. Indeed, if anything they have grown more urgent. Whereas in the age of the physical book schools and universities could have bought fewer books and made up the difference by using photocopies, it is now possible for an organisation to buy a single set of digital materials and reproduce them ad infinitum.

Obviously, without some mechanism to guarantee rights-holders are compensated for such use we remove all incentive for investment in developing new content. After all, why go to the expense of creating a textbook (or some form of digital course materials) if you are going to sell only a half-dozen copies to state education departments?

Australia's success in managing the transition to digital is therefore inextricably connected to our capacity to develop and implement licensing arrangements that will allow users to derive full benefit from the increased access to content digital technology provides, while ensuring creators are provided with adequate incentives to develop innovative content.

CAL has an important role to play in this process. We already administer a range of licences allowing users to reproduce and distribute digital material, and we are working with the industry and stakeholders to refine these licences. Commensurately, we have been working to improve our internal processes, to ensure speedier and more transparent payment to members. And, through joint projects with the publishing industry as well as our cultural fund, we are investing in projects designed to help members and the industry manage the transition to digital.

Yet we also face challenges, most particularly greater resistance by users to paying for use of copyright material in the digital environment.

Perhaps ironically, given that the most vocal advocates of this view are within the education sector, this debate turns on a failure to value the written word. Despite a widespread attitude that there should be no restrictions on the reproduction of digital material, hardly anyone makes the same suggestion about audiovisual material. Would anyone think it was reasonable for music or movies to be copied for free by Australian schools and universities? Yet the principle is the same. The only difference is the medium.

None of this is to say there isn't a need for us to develop more flexible regimes for managing and sharing intellectual property. The licences developed by Creative Commons are an important example, as indeed are the many open source and collaborative media ventures that have developed in recent years.

All the same, it is important not to overstate the importance of alternative licensing models. While Creative Commons licenses are an option for authors and artists who do not need or want payment for their work, for authors and artists who are required to make a living from their words they are of rather less utility. Likewise, despite underpinning the development of extraordinary creations such as Wikipedia, collaborative media models are not going to replace the materials developed by educational publishers anytime soon.

In other words, the challenge CAL and its licences were developed to meet, that of allowing users access to copyright material while ensuring ongoing investment in the development of new material, is not going anywhere in a hurry.

And, more significantly, Australia's success in the digital environment depends on our success in meeting this challenge.

CAL - or, more precisely, the certainty it offers rights-holders and users - has a vital role to play in this context.

James Bradley is one of three author directors on the board of the Copyright Agency Limited.

Editor's note: The article referred to by James Bradley, which has generated an at times histrionic response from some CAL representatives, is based around two statements of fact. The first is that the collection agency last year paid $9.4m in salaries, compared with a $9.1m direct allocation for authors and artists. The second is that CAL supplements its direct payments to authors with a $76m allocation to Australian and international publishers on the assumption that a proportion of this money will be returned to authors.

The salient point here is that neither CAL nor the publishers are able to say how much has been passed on to authors.

The impression has grown within the higher education community that CAL, in essence a collection agency, has developed a top-heavy executive structure more in keeping with an entrepreneurial body: note, CAL takes no entrepreneurial risk and generates little or no wealth. Concerns also remain about the opacity of its distribution to authors of what is, in essence, public money.

Luke Slattery

 
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