You gotta fight, for your right, to… copy?

 Alida Fellows


To copy, or not to copy? That was the essential question – with no real answer at Friday’s ‘Copyfight’ panel event for the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The all-Australian panel included author and translator Linda Jaivin, writer/director Peter Duncan, journalist and film critic Marc Fennell and was hosted by publisher Phillipa McGuinness, editor of the eponymous book Copyfight, released this month. With a dynamic mix of cultural commentators, the event was ripe for discussion on the now social norm of consuming any creative content, anywhere, anytime then copying and sharing it on – without thought for the copyright of the original creator.

There was a big turnout; the crowd’s demographic skewing middle-aged. Ms McGuiness opened the event, promising “we are going to make this worth your while and you will discover that what used to be a very archaic part of the law is now an absolute cultural hotspot. You are in the epicenter right here.” The panel did have a distinct pop cultural flavour, with references to James Bond, Ayn Rand, Kanye West, RocKwiz and MasterChef peppering the discussion.

Ms McGuiness, executive publisher at NewSouth Publishing and passionate copyright defender for more than 20 years, stood as a representative for the book industry. She described the contracts she brokers with authors; copyright being “the glue that binds this whole ecosystem of creativity, content and commercial enterprise”.

Ms Jaivin agreed: “Thanks to copyright, Eat Me [her first book] kept me fed and housed while I wrote my next book.”

But in the digital world “parts of copyright are becoming unstuck,” said Ms McGuiness. “It’s an extremely important topic but easy to forget about when you just click and download.”

Marc Fennell was the biggest personality of the panel. It was he that inspired Copyfight when in 2010, on the now-defunct ABC TV show The Hungry Beast, he said: “We live in a remix world – get over it.” He also described copyright as “creative captivity” but now his position is slightly more “nuanced” Ms McGuiness said.

The opening topic was the music industry, and Mr Fennell ran with it as a great example of business adapting to digital advancements. “Being able to download apps like iTunes and Spotify it suddenly became easier to pay for music than not to, and that’s the over-arching argument I have,” he said. “If you want to succeed in the digital realm you just can’t be morally right – you’re already morally right by asking to pay. You have to make it easier for people to do the legal thing so you get paid.”

Of the panelists, Mr Fennell was clearly more engaged with and accepting of the social norms of media consumption. “It’s a deeply fragmented world and people are consuming media in ways they never have before,” he said. And when he’s thinking of new ideas “the internet is what I think of first, in terms of getting people to consume my content.”

The subject of the wants of the consumer versus the rights of the creator touched off a charged debate. When it came to the film industry’s struggle against online piracy Ms Jaivin argued: “Do you need to see that film right now for free, (more than) than the film crews who need to get paid?” To which Mr Fennell responded: “You’re not wrong, but when someone is making a purchase decision, your argument doesn’t hold up”.

Mr Duncan was not impressed. “So what we’re basically doing is accommodating for a social malaise of high consumerism. People’s feelings are, ‘if I can’t get it now, if you’re not going to give it to me now, then I’m entitled to steal it’, and I think that’s crap,” he said. But Mr Fennell said it was a basic supply and demand model: “At the end of the day, somebody wants what you’re doing. Find a way to give it to them easily that they’ll pay you for it.”

For content creators, whether it is nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of no fortune gained from their creative work than have no exposure at all, is essentially an ideological argument with no clear solution. In closing the event, Mr Fennell was optimistic the situation was “fixable”. Ms Jaivin saw it as consumer’s behaviour having to change despite their criticism of company distribution models: “There are problems with the distribution models, especially in film and TV,” she said. But, she added, “If you download instead of waiting you’re not sticking it to the man, you’re sticking it to the artists.”