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Australia's Copyright-Law Change Concerns Publishers

BRITISH thriller writer Colin Forbes's new book "Cross of Fire" was in Australian bookstores on Jan. 30, less than 30 days after the same book was released in London.

Two years ago, Australians would have waited at least three months for the Pan Macmillan Australia book to arrive. Now, however, a new copyright law is forcing publishers to print books early or air freight them into Australia to avoid losing their territorial copyright.

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The law, which went into effect Dec. 23, requires companies either to publish the books first in Australia or within 30 days of first publication overseas. In addition, publishers must fill orders within 90 days if a book is out of stock. If the order can't be filled in that time frame, a bookseller is free to buy the book anywhere else in the world.

The law will have a major impact on what books Australians read, when they read them, and how much they will pay for them. Attorney General Michael Duffy says the changes will enhance reading as well as giving Australians better access to overseas books.

At the same time, the law is having an effect far beyond Australia's shores. Ross Gibb, managing director of Pan Macmillan, says the United Kingdom publisher began preparing for the new law 18 months ago. The parent company in the UK now works even further ahead than it used to. In order to get books to Australia within the 30-day time limit, he says the parent company may hold up the publishing date in London.

"Australia can have the book before the publishing date in another country," says Mr. Gibb.

BERT HINGLEY, publishing director of Hodder & Stoughton (Australia), a subsidiary of one of the largest UK publishers, says that the law is also effecting international marketing decisions.

"Say our parent company buys the Commonwealth rights with the intent to publish a book six months after the American publication. Maybe you wanted the book for Father's Day," Mr. Hingley says. In order to meet the requirement of the law, however, the book must be in Australia within 30 days of publishing in the United States. "The marketing decision has been taken away from you," he complains.

Meeting the time requirement of the law is adding to the publishing cost.

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"It takes longer than 30 days to ship, so most publishers are looking at lateral solutions," says Peter Field, managing director of Penguin Books Australia.

For example, publishers are air freighting books or printing them in Australia. Books produced in Australia are more expensive, because the paper is shipped from Scandinavia and the print runs are smaller.

It's still too early to tell if the added expense will be included in the price of the book at retail. If prices rise, it will be ironic, since the law began as a result of an investigation into the price of books by the Prices Surveillance Authority (PSA), a watch-dog government agency. The instructions to the PSA included a request that the authority try to determine if the importation of books directly affected book prices.

The investigation looked at a post-World War II agreement between UK and US publishers that effectively split up the world for copyright purposes. UK publishers agreed they would buy only the UK rights to a book if they also received rights to the whole Commonwealth. Thus, American agents rarely negotiated Australian rights separately, since they would lose the publishing rights in Britain.

This arrangement walloped Canberra in 1984 when the Australian Treasury Department tried to buy 500 copies of David Stockman's memoirs of his short stay in the Reagan cabinet. Mr. Stockman's agent, however, had not sold the rights to a UK publisher, so the Aussies could not order them in the country.

FOURTEEN months later a small UK publisher finally printed the book. HarperCollins in Australia, which had received 2,500 orders for the book, threw out the orders since the book was so late.

"The author really missed out here," says Brian Wilder, a former executive with HarperCollins.

Under the new law, situations like this cannot happen. If a territorial copyright is not protected, "booksellers can bring them in from elsewhere," says Helen Daniels, a lawyer with the federal attorney general's department. Publishers, however, doubt this will happen.

"It's nice to ring up the publisher and get an acceptable discount, and there is no problem if books are damaged, they get replaced," says Mr. Wilder, now managing director of McGraw-Hill Book Company Australia.

In addition, the bookseller does not have to worry about currency exposure or following up on an order halfway around the world.

Although the intent of the law is to increase access to books, some publishers believe it will actually reduce the number of titles arriving in Australia.

"It will concentrate the marketing spins on the big authors," says Gibb, adding, "On some books we may not protect the copyright." It will then be up to the bookseller to find and buy the books elsewhere.

American officials are unhappy with the change. "There is a potential loss of market and dilution of copyrights for whomever holds it," says a US official in Canberra.

Australia will monitor the law over the next three years to see how it works.

In the meantime, the PSA has been asked to look at the price of computer software, using the same terms of reference as the study that led to changes in the book industry.

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