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Time for the truth to interfere with the copyright battle in Australia

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

(Kate Haddock, Chair of the Australian Copyright Council, picks apart Wikipedia’s campaign, FairCopyrightOz, to get copyright law changed in Australia)

Journalists who investigate and reveal facts, and respected commentators whose informed opinions generate discussion, are vital to democracy at a time when facts are obscured and opinions are not reliable.

I spent every day after school throughout my childhood in my mother’s suburban newspaper office, and I have enormous respect for journalists who tell the truth even while media resources disintegrate.

“Never let the truth interfere with a good story,” was said regularly around the offices of the Campbelltown Star. But even as a child I understood it was a joke, because the truth was what the journos were there to tell, regardless of political or corporate interference.

How disappointing, then, journalists such as Peter Martin at The Age, appear to have allowed themselves to become the mouthpiece for some kind of anti-copyright lobby agitating for a change to Australia’s copyright laws to introduce a so-called “fair use” regime.

This week, Mr Martin’s concern is that “if Wikipedia was hosted in Australia, it would be breaking the law“.

Wikipedia is urging Australian users to email their politicians (and of course to donate to the campaign) to change the law. The journalists and Wikipedia should get themselves some better copyright advisers.

Mr Martin’s sources at Electronic Frontiers Australia are very worried about Wikipedia’s use of the ABC logo in an article about, among other things, the ABC logo, which most first-year law students could identify is allowed under current Australian law (even if the ABC is objecting to its use, which it doesn’t appear to be).

Sources at the Wikimedia Foundation in San Francisco say they are very concerned about the “conceivable” possibility that individual teachers in Australia will have to pay to show Wikipedia pages to students in class, which shows a monumental misunderstanding of all aspects of the way educational institutions use and pay for copyright material in Australia.

The Australian Digital Alliance which “represents librarians” like some kind of Dewey Decimal Lorax, chimes in with concerns about laws relating to video tapes which are irrelevant to the operation of libraries.

Wikipedia doesn’t break Australian copyright

None of the reported concerns withstand any level of intelligent scrutiny, let alone educated analysis. Wikipedia’s content is essentially original text that sits within its own guidelines for ‘encyclopaedic content’. Contributors around the world upload their content to Wikipedia, licensing Wikipedia to publish online. In other words, the uploading of such content does not in any way breach Australia’s current copyright laws.

Further, the belief held by these sources that hosting Wikipedia in the US protects them from copyright law in Australia is simply wrong.

Any Australian creator whose work or content is infringed has the right to pursue any legal action available to them as creators. Given then that Wikipedia is subject to Australian copyright law, the assertion that our law would prevent it being set up here is false.

This campaign is not about ensuring that “every person in the world has access to knowledge” (sweet though that is).

Big tech using content without paying for it

This campaign is about Big Tech companies who want the change so they can use Australian content — music, literature, educational materials, movies — without paying for it. But what with one thing and another, Big Tech are looking a bit more like Big Pharma than they used to, so they hide behind the more socially acceptable crowd-sourced Wikipedia, not to mention the librarians.

They’re calling for “fair use”, a legal doctrine used in just a handful of countries — the US, Singapore, South Korea and Israel — which they say will lead to a flourishing of innovation in Australia. But here’s the rub, “fair use” is what allows Big Tech companies to capture data about individuals and improve their search algorithms to help sell to advertisers. Google’s total ad sales in the first quarter of this year from all sources were worth $21.4 billion.

This is where you need to let the truth get in the way of this good story. Australian laws already allow extracts of copyrighted work to be displayed without permission in circumstances that are truly fair. But the so-called “fair use” exception would allow much more. The reason this is causing so much consternation within the artistic community in Australia is that its introduction could potentially allow massive users of copyright material to reduce or stop paying licence fees to creators, including for commercial uses of their work.

The cost of moving to “fair use” would be felt particularly by Australian creators, which means less Australian produced content, more job losses and higher copyright litigation costs. It means the risk that Australian children will not learn from Australian textbooks. For a small country like Australia, this is a major problem.

Access to knowledge

Copyright laws do not restrict access to knowledge in Australia. There is simply no evidence to show that people in this country have any difficulty accessing copyright material or the information it contains, because of our copyright laws.

We have one of the most extensive regimes in the world for access to content, including exceptionally broad provisions for the education sector, libraries and people with disabilities. With a population of just 24 million, the Australian copyright system requires a more nuanced approach than simply importing a controversially complex copyright regime from the US.

The only reason that Wikipedia and the other major corporations behind Mr Martin’s sources want fair use in Australia is to improve their own, already substantial, bottom lines.

University lecturers infamously advise undergraduate students not to cite Wikipedia in research work. It is sound advice, and something that journalists and Big Tech could well heed.

(Kate Haddock is Chair of the Australian Copyright Council and a Partner at Banki Haddock Fiora)

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