Don’t come the raw prawn over creative rights

June 10, 2017

Iconic Australian playwright David Williamson wrote in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday 10 June about why copyright is so vital to him and why he and 49 of Australia’s leading stage and screenwriters have signed an Open Letter rejecting any relaxation of Australian copyright.

“A lot of people used to say to me, you’re lucky to have this gift.

People who declare they are not creative and could never do what I do.

And yes, I may have been lucky enough to have been gifted some native talents, but the ability to be able to do what I do, to create unique voices, to craft humour and emotional punch on the page, didn’t appear magically the first time I sat down at a typewriter. It was a hard won and often emotionally demanding learning curve. In short it was hard work…as any other artist who has achieved success like Jessica Mauboy or Jimmy Barnes, Baz Luhrmann, Leah Purcell or Ivan Sen could tell you.

And the hard work isn’t over after you’ve had your first success.

To the outsider, my world might seem idyllic. I sit daily and play with these characters as they emerge from my mind’s eye, down through my fingers and onto the page. Stop for a cup of tea occasionally and recline to look at the clouds. Lucky bastard.

For anyone closer than that, I mean the people within my creative ecosystem, the picture is quite different. Yes, there is that inspired moment when creativity is flowing, but the truth is, you don’t just look at a blank page and turn on a tap.

Let me give you a quick reality check. With any creative work brought to the stage, there has been years of development time – usually not paid (unless a grant has come along). Once a play does go on to a stage, there is a payment, and then potentially some other channels to receive an income – for instance if the play is studied in the classroom, like The Removalists, which I wrote in 1971, I might receive a copyright royalty.

That’s because Australia has an education copyright licence that allows every student and every teacher in every school access to everything ever published. Education systems pay the Copyright Agency about 30c per week per student, for all this access. It’s the sort of thing that parents and students wouldn’t know about, but it’s a massive time-saver for teachers because they don’t have to worry about asking permission. The Agency then surveys teachers and pays the creators whose work has been copied.

For playwrights, these payments help sustain our practice, supporting an industry that creates some of this nation’s most important stories. But it’s not just plays, it’s poems, short stories, journalism, illustrations, science, maths and English resources. It’s everything from documentaries like First Australians to the homegrown international export Mathletics. Creative content supporting the next generation of business people, leaders, artists, engineers, doctors, nurses and teachers.

So, when high-powered economists, chairs, commissioners, and even recently Wikipedia, bang on about entrenched players wanting to protect their copyright I see red.

Copyright is the cornerstone of creativity in this country and those who create original work have a right over that work to say whether or not it can be exploited by someone else.

There are people who want to change that and they are backed by global technology giants whose business model is to free-ride on the coat tails of others, because the algorithm is more important than the content. These big tech players want to water down copyright so it’s easier for them to use the work of playwrights, songwriters and authors for free or for minimum payment.

Don’t come the raw prawn with me – as Barrie Humphries would say. I grew up watching everything from Skippy to Mad Max, listening to Cold Chisel, laughing with Magda’s Pixie-Anne and being taken on an epic journey by Tom Keneally. Those creations, those people all rely on the Australian copyright system to do its job, so making poorly considered changes will undermine all that in the future.

It’s a fair system, it employs people and it ensures that we hear our own voices in this speedily homogenising world.

Try not paying the butcher next time you buy some sausages and see what reaction you get. Don’t come the raw prawn with me!”

David Williamson AO is one of Australia’s best-known and successful playwrights. He has won 11 AWGIE Awards and four AFI Awards.

See the published article: 10 June Daily Telegraph David Williamson on copyright and creative rights


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