Victor Parizot was refusing to pay his bill.
He hadn’t intended, on that evening in 1849, to create a scene at his local Parisian restaurant; the meal and musical entertainment were enjoyable. But when, to his surprise, the small orchestra played a particular piece of music with which he was thoroughly familiar, he decided to stand up for his rights. It was one of his own compositions and he thought he should be recompensed for its use. ‘I’ll pay for my dinner,’ he told the waiter, ‘when I’m paid for my music.’
The ensuing dispute went to court, where the composer won his case, thus establishing that the creator of a work of art deserves remuneration when it’s publicly used. A further century would pass before the principle of performing rights became extended to lending rights for authors whose books are borrowed from public libraries, and in our country Public Lending Right legislation was not enacted until 1985, after many years of dogged campaigning by the Australian Society of Authors (ASA). It almost happened a decade earlier: Gough Whitlam’s bill to provide an administrative framework for PLR was scheduled for tabling in parliament on 11 November 1975 – the day of his government’s dismissal.
The scheme of PLR payment to authors, based on the number of library loans of their books, is just one of the great achievements by the ASA since its foundation more than half a century ago. I’ve recently been reading Status and Sugar: A History of the Australian Society of Authors 1963-2013, by Stephany Steggall, in which I read about Monsieur Parizot’s dispute and many other instructive episodes from the past. As one who has benefited materially from PLR, from fees for licensed copying, and from several other business arrangements designed to protect writers, I have good reason to be deeply grateful to this fine organisation.
Writers in Australia today face serious challenges, and need more than ever the advocacy and practical support provided by the ASA. Some of those challenges dominated discussion at the ASA’s Annual General Meeting held last weekend in Sydney, which I attended in my capacity as a newly appointed Director on its Board of Management. It was sobering to hear about the likely impact of recent developments such as the release of the Productivity Commission’s wrongheaded draft report on Australia’s intellectual property arrangements.
The so-called ‘Fair Use’ exception to existing copyright provisions, which the report recommends be introduced, would be culturally and economically damaging for Australia, and would rob individual authors of a legitimate source of income from copying fees. For a summary of problems that would ensue if this report were to be adopted by government, see what the Copyright Agency has to say.
The Commission also recommends the repeal of restrictions on the Parallel Importation on Books. This is a more complicated and contested topic. On the one hand it seems to some commentators that the current restrictions are anti-competitive, protecting local publishers at the expense of readers. But for a contrary view, see Thomas Keneally’s remarks in the Australian Financial Review.
You can expect vigorous public combat and private lobbying on these matters during the federal election campaign. And you can rely on the ASA to be in the thick of it. If you’re an established or aspiring writer but are not a member of the ASA, do consider joining so that you can contribute to and benefit from a vital organisation devoted to promoting and protecting the professional interests of literary creators. Its website contains information about different categories of membership and the various services provided.