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Friday, 6 December 1985
Page: 3160

Senator COLSTON(1.37) —The legislation before the Senate is a sound reminder of the Australian Labor Party's commitment to the arts in Australia. The introduction of the Public Lending Right Bill is a culmination of action taken by the Labor Administration of 1972 to 1975. At this stage, perhaps like Senator Puplick who spoke before me, I should declare an interest in this piece of proposed legislation, although that interest is quite small, especially after the payments made to me are taxed at my marginal tax rate of 60 per cent. The proposed legislation will not result in any change to my personal interest, so I feel at liberty to speak about the Bill.

The public lending rights scheme was introduced by the Whitlam Government in 1974. The concept of public lending rights, however, was not unknown in Australia at that time. Indeed, the first scheme of this nature was introduced very shortly after the end of World War II. This was in Denmark in 1946 and was followed by Nordic countries such as Norway, Finland, Sweden and Iceland. New Zealand introduced a scheme in 1973 and Australia and the United Kingdom followed in 1974 and 1979 respectively.

The purpose of this Bill is to establish a statutory public lending rights scheme to provide payments to Australian authors and publishers whose books are used by members of the public through public libraries. It is a little ironic that composers and dramatists have, in many countries, received payment whenever their works are performed in public, but that it was not until 11 years or so ago that authors and publishers were compensated when their books were lent to readers in public libraries.

Although we now have a Public Lending Right Bill before us, it must be stressed that this Bill is merely giving legislative authority to a scheme which for some time had relied on administrative action. The scheme came into reality in April 1974 and had many similarities to the New Zealand scheme which had impressed the then Prime Minister, Mr Whitlam. It did, however, have some significant differences from the New Zealand scheme. Under the Australian scheme, eligibility for payment to an author could extend beyond his lifetime. This occurred because the life of each title extended from its date of publication through the life of an author or, if the author died, for 50 years from the publication date.

Australian publishers also receive a royalty. The payment to authors was originally 50c a year for every copy held in a library, provided that a sample survey indicated that there were at least 50 library shelf copies. That amount has been increased over the intervening years but certainly has not kept in line with inflation. The rate of payment per volume has increased to 70c for authors and 17.5c for publishers. If the original payment had increased to reflect changes in the consumer price index it would be at least twice the rate which is now paid. The same thing would happen for the original 12.5c per copy for Australian publishers. It would now have been at least twice that rate. This matter was mentioned by Senator Puplick when he said that perhaps we should have some indexation provision in the legislation.

For the many authors who benefit from this scheme it is hoped that in the future a more realistic adjustment will be made for both the author's and the publisher's rates. If not, the Australian public lending rights scheme will be regarded as only a token gesture to authors and publishers and will quickly fall into disrepute. The public lending rights scheme acknowledges that writers contribute to the enjoyment and learning of the Australian community. This scheme does not regard the amounts which are paid to authors and publishers as a gift from government. Rather, the opposite is the case. The payments should be regarded as a right.

The public lending rights scheme provides a little more financial independence for Australian writers. Even with this increased independence, it is fair to say that most authors still struggle to maintain a living. It is often thought that Australian authors are financially secure. For most, this is a total misconception. Certainly, some authors make a reasonable living from their writing and some are reported to be quite wealthy. Colleen McCullough, for example, was reported not too long ago as being a millionaire. Considering her prolific output and the successful translation of her works to the screen, this is hardly surprising. I suppose that we can still call Colleen McCullough an Australian even though she left here in about 1963. It must be remembered, however, that, provided the necessary conditions are fulfilled, public lending rights are paid not only to wealthy authors but also to less successful authors. It is these people, the less successful, who find this payment to be of real significance.

In the total budgetary context this Bill is only a minor piece of legislation. It controls expenditure of less than $2m. When the average payment per claimant is calculated it may be seen that the actual amounts paid to authors and publishers are small. In 1984, for example, $1.1m was paid to almost 4,000 writers, an average of just under $300 per author. The average payment to publishers is larger principally because there are fewer publishers than authors. An amount of $279,000 was paid to 225 publishers in 1984, an average of $1,240. For a commercial publisher, a payment of this nature is of help, but hardly one which in itself would make that person wealthy.

Not only authors and publishers benefit from an author's work; the Australian film industry has been quick to see the advantage of producing films based on Australian written material. Some of us earlier this year, for example, had the opportunity to preview the film An Indecent Obsession, which was based on the novel of the same name by Colleen McCullough. Other Australian authors have been similarly successful in having their work translated to the screen. I expect that, with the Australian dollar having depreciated against the United States dollar, the demand for Australian-made productions will increase. If this is so, it will undoubtedly be of benefit to Australian authors. An increase in the filming and televising of our own culture will probably result.

I should mention one matter which does not relate strictly to this Bill but which affects not only authors but also composers and musical performers. We now have strict copyright laws, but I sometimes wonder how often these are breached. The photocopier undoubtedly eats into the potential gain of authors. Some schools that I have visited obey the law strictly. Others have apparently never heard of copyright provisions. In the musical area the tape recorder and the video cassette recorder have allowed pirate and private copying to proceed almost unhindered, despite its illegality. Estimates have been made that every recording that is made is reproduced 2 1/2 times by pirate and private taping. A similar breaking of copyright occurs with movie productions.

In another but related area, I read an advertisement recently which proclaimed the virtues of a particular piece of computer software. It claimed that this would allow a user to copy even the most difficult, copy-protected computer disks. The fact that there may be copyright breaches in making a copy did not seem to worry the advertisers and, presumably, their customers. This is an issue which will have to be pursued to protect our artists and authors from the parasites who thumb their nose at the law.

Returning to the Bill before us, it is a long-awaited piece of significant legislation. An Australian authors Bill was introduced in 1975 but lapsed with the shameful dissolution of the Parliament in 1975. It is a great pity that the Fraser Government did not take up the idea and propose legislation of a similar nature. However, the Public Lending Right Bill 1985 is now before this chamber and I, like the Minister for Community Services (Senator Grimes), commend the Bill to the Senate.