Billy Barnes is a JD Candidate at the University of Toronto.
The Australian government recently rejected a recommendation by the Productivity Commission to repeal the Copyright Act’s parallel import restrictions. Parallel import restrictions, which exist in most English-speaking countries including Canada, prevent the importation of copyrighted works without the consent of the local rightsholder. Australia’s Copyright Act currently forbids parallel importation of books if an Australian publisher releases the book within 30 days of its first release elsewhere.
The Commission found that the parallel import restrictions allowed Australian publishers to set prices much higher than the prices set in other markets: the average price of an Australian book was found to be 35% higher than the equivalent American edition. They concluded that permitting bookstores to stock copies of books imported from outside Australia would encourage lower prices.
The Australian government, however, did not agree with the Commission. The current regime allows exceptions for individuals buying books from overseas retailers. In other words, an Australian citizen can already order a book online at the US price and, with at least one popular store, free shipping. Further, they noted that electronic books are increasing in popularity and compete with locally printed books. With already available competition and the likelihood of that competition increasing, the government decided that whatever benefits may come from removing the restrictions would be outweighed by the effect on the Australian publishing industry. They also rejected suggestions that a price cap system (as is in place in Canada for some books) be introduced or that the length of the local monopoly be shortened.
I largely agree with the Australian government on this issue. In particular, it seems unwise to remove import restrictions while other countries maintain them. First, because it expands the markets of foreign publishers without expanding the market for Australian publishers. Second, because it would undermine the ability of authors to negotiate Australian rights: exclusive rights would become non-exclusive. Further, the actual price differences found in the report have been criticized for comparing Australian recommended retail prices to reduced prices at American online retailers—prices which are available to Australian customers as well. If the only goal of removing the restrictions is encouraging Australian publishers to monitor foreign prices more carefully, then competition from online retailers and e-books may be enough. It’s far too early to tell.