Melbourne Writers’ Festival 2016 Opening Night
– Miles Franklin Award introduction –
What does it take to produce a superb work of literature? Talent, intelligence and the perseverance of an explorer, perhaps even a fictitious one such as Johann Ulrich Voss.
A writer needs patience, time and a quiet place to encounter an elusive muse. Careful, He Might Hear You.
Writers can find creative sustenance through a partner, publisher or editor. Even a mentor, as Henry Lawson was at times to Miles Franklin. She was A Woman of the Future, whose legacy is the singular literary award we celebrate tonight.
Artists, too, are forever redrafting visions of financial security. Bliss is certainly not $13,000 a year, the mean annual income of writers. And it is mean, a national shame, less than a quarter of the average wage.
Money matters. This award, which celebrates our best fiction writing, has played a vital role in sustaining and keeping the focus on Brilliant Careers.
The Copyright Agency collects usage fees for artists from educational institutions, governments and companies, and also supports writers through the Cultural Fund, our philanthropic arm, to make sure those careers don’t go bung.
For more than 300 years, copyright laws have protected the inalienable human right of intellectual property. They were born during the Enlightenment to balance the claims of creators and rights holders against the wider society’s needs.
That first English copyright law of 1710, the Statute of Anne, had a clear intention from its birth notice:
‘An Act For The Encouragement of Learning.’
But let’s not forget the echo of earning in that word either. As author John Birmingham argued in an essay about the digital maelstrom engulfing all creative people:
“Copyright is not some arcane legal architecture designed to deny people what they are due. It is a simple codification of respect.”
Respect for the sheer toil of creating and esteem for the terms of how that art is used. It’s simply a code so writers receive a decent return for The Time We Have Taken, to create something of utility, Truth, and such beauty it will keep All the Birds, Singing.
Yet the moral contract, the system of Just Relations, underpinning the livelihood of writers, journalists, artists and film and television creators is under threat.
To solve a problem they can’t quite grasp, policy makers are asking the wrong questions of experts. The Turnbull government is being asked to aid and abet the destruction of the bedrock of artistic production.
Creators find themselves at the mercy of the economic fundamentalists at the Productivity Commission, who are trying to poison The Well of Australian creativity and imagination.
The commission conducted an inquiry into intellectual property and called for changes to the copyright regime, including the introduction of an American legal principle known as “fair use”.
That leap would potentially allow large corporations to use copyrighted material for free, where they now must pay. That would see fewer Australian stories on our bookshelves, on our screens and in our schools, disintegration, a loss of spirit, That Deadman Dance.
Fair use would undermine Australian creativity. Sheltering in a Dark Palace, the commission is blind to that Trap because most new content consumed here, they concluded, comes from The Great World.
But why are politicians, so seemingly bedazzled by tech utopians, caught up in a doctrine that avows reducing the costs of some of the modern world’s most successful companies will boost our GDP or the GNI – the gross national intelligence?
For a person who has spent a professional lifetime running organisations that take risks, invest billions and innovate to provide the best of local and international content to Australian consumers, this is utterly dispiriting.
The Acolytes of flawed economic ideology believe these protections for creators should be junked to allow hackers, free loaders and thieves to thrive. In any event, they declare, let the lawyers sort it out.
The commission has been hoodwinked and makes grave errors of analysis; this benighted order of the Stone Country neither understands the commercial terrain nor the drivers of innovation. It cannot see the Grove for the Eucalyptus.
Let’s not fall for a folly that would cost creators and their backers, and the nation at large, an estimated economy-wide $1 billion in lost production. An own-goal, just so big companies tech companies can eat for free, like children at a resort, Dancing On Coral.
In the era of digital disruption the robustness of our culture is being tested. Our writers, from military historians to lyric poets, are creating stories that speak to us in ways outsiders never can. Not because we are xenophobes or chauvinists, but because their bounty originates in our soil, blood and experience.
We cannot keep out the world, nor should we seek to deny ourselves the richness of civilization. But we should not cause injury to people who risk their souls to tell truths about how we live and what we aspire to be.
We must avoid the self-harm of ‘fair use’ which will stunt even the most resilient of our writers, and the rest of us, too, denying our identity, our capacity for wonder and our hope in the power of story, come what may. All That I Am going to say is we must resist this path to oblivion.
Now is the time to nuture and support our talented writers – such as those finalists we honour tonight.
I wish to thank and acknowledge Perpetual, custodians of the Miles Franklin bequest. Perpetual is an ideal partner and this year have increased their funding and commitment.
As well, I’d like to thank our media partners, the team at Melbourne Writers Festival, and all who continue to support great literature in this country.
Finally, I’d like to honour this year’s extraordinary short-listed finalists:
HOPE FARM by Peggy Frew
LEAP by Myfanwy Jones
BLACK ROCK WHITE CITY by A.S. Patric
SALT CREEK by Lucy Treloar, and
THE NATURAL WAY OF THINGS by Charlotte Wood
Each of these fine books in their own way explores the Australian experience, from suburbia to the frontier, and our humanity through meditations on grief, exclusion and misogyny.
Like these authors on big, enduring themes, we can find new ways to be bold, agile and innovative, satisfying the Prime Minister’s admirable intentions. It’s a matter of seeking equilibrium, as worldly philosophers might say, as we did during the Enlightenment.
There is a balance, a practical genius, between the incentives and protections for creators, and the rights of readers and viewers to access wonderful art on fair – not free – terms.
Kim Williams AM
Chairman, Copyright Agency