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When stealing is fine

Getting people excited about copyright is right up there with getting them eager to pay taxes. It is one of those abstract concepts that’s couched in negatives: you may not copy a file, you should not download a movie, you must not share music.

The rhetorical battle for copyright has long been lost.

Chances are, we’ve all at some point downloaded a pirated movie, music, book or other content. The messiness of obtaining a digital file legally can reduce even the most law-abiding citizen to piracy: this movie is not available on iTunes Malta due to geographical restrictions; that book is more expensive on amazon.com than on its UK counterpart; the Malta Netflix choice is woefully inferior to that of its UK or US sister sites.

No wonder, then, that the new Copyright Directive before the European Parliament, intent on updating copyright legislation for the digital 21st century, is striking many chords and finding near-universal backing.

What’s not to like in the removal of geo-blocking and in allowing users to enjoy their digital subscriptions even while travelling across the EU?

In this wave of enthusiasm for a liberalised digital playing field, it is very easy to overlook the basic principle that copyright is essentially about protecting intellectual property. In the case of literature that would be the countless hours of work put in by authors, illustrators, editors, publishers, often for remuneration way below what most of us would accept for our work. But literature is the Cinderella of the creative industry and, in the public backlash against the music and film industries, it gets the short end of the stick.

Take Malta: with a population of less than half a million, of whom only a fraction reads regularly and only a tiny percentage of that fraction reads Maltese literature, writing and publishing books is a labour of love more than anything.

To put things into perspective, let’s do the math. Let’s take a novel that costs, on average, about €10. After removing VAT and distributor cuts, we’re left with about €4.50, from which all editing, design, proofreading, illustration, printing, marketing costs need to be paid. The remaining measly sum is then shared between author and publisher: an upfront royalty for the author and a long-term return for the publisher. All this across an average print run that, in Malta, for fiction, has dwindled to just 500 copies.

Enforcement of respect for copyright would be an important, and urgent, first step towards saving Maltese books

And, yet, there is an almost universal obsession with pirating books. “Free literature from the shackles of copyright”, “sharing books should be free”. These phrases are constantly bandied around, forgetting perhaps that the “free sharing” is actually plundering the hard work of authors and publishers.

In no other area of modern life do we expect to walk into a store, take stuff off the shelves and just walk out with it. Would a head of school sanction his teachers marching into the village stationer and taking the stationery needed for class without paying? Do we expect to get our internet connection, our water and electricity for free? Yet, when it comes to books, a good number of Maltese schools have no qualms about allowing uncontrolled photocopying or its digital equivalent, scanning for use on class electronic whiteboards.

The excuse usually is that funds are limited. Let’s, for a moment, put aside the fact that limited funds have never been an excuse for stealing. Millions of euros were forthcoming to buy whiteboards in the past and now the tablets. So why is it that, when it comes to a few thousand euros for compensating authors and publishers to reproduce their work, then funds suddenly dry up?

Education is the one area of publishing where quantities and returns are relatively higher, the profits of which go directly to subsidise the near-entirety of the rest of the literature scene: novels, anthologies, poetry, research tomes. Kill the former and you’re also killing the latter.

Malta is one of the last three EU countries not to have a licensing set-up whereby authors and publishers are compensated for use of their content through photocopying or scanning in schools. And it is also the only country where there is virtually no enforcement within the educational system against unauthorised copying.

We expect Maltese publishers to come up with cutting-edge educational content for the teaching of the Maltese language but we are happy to not pay them. Maltese publishers have been closing up shop in alarming numbers over the past 10 years and only a handful remain. Let’s remember that, without them, there will be no published Maltese literature, educational or otherwise.

It would be good, for a change, for the authorities and the educational institutions to support this beleaguered industry. Enforcement of respect for copyright would be an important, and urgent, first step towards saving Maltese books.

Chris Gruppetta is director of Merlin Publishers.

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