Why can’t Australians buy the ebooks they want?

In the past few months, the world seems to have gone ebook mad. First the Amazon Kindle was made available locally, now we await the Apple iPad, due at the end of May. Plenty of people are already reading on iPhones and other mobile screens, and there are quite a number of other readers available and an ever-expanding choice of online stores from which to buy ebooks. The reader devices vary in price and features, but for Australian users one complaint is common: I’ve paid for the gizmo, now why is it so hard to buy the ebooks I want to read on the damned thing?

The short, but far from simple, answer is that it’s due to territorial copyright, contractual arrangements between authors and publishers and the long-established ways of book publishing—and it’s nothing to do with Parallel Importation regulations (PIRs) in Australia’s Copyright Act (the restrictions that were such a hot topic of debate last year). That’s because PIRs only cover print books. Electronic files are only considered in the Copyright Act if they’re in physical form—i.e: burned onto CDs/DVDs. There is currently no provision in Australia’s Copyright Act that covers ebook files.

A common misconception is that it is Australian publishers that are restricting access to ebooks that are available to readers in other countries; but this isn’t really the case. On the whole it is US (and in some cases UK) publishers who are setting geographical restrictions on ebooks based on (a cautious reading of) their existing book contracts.

In the simplest (and for this example the best) case an author would sign a global contract with one publisher to sell their book in all markets and in any and all formats. In reality, for the vast majority of books, authors grant only certain rights to their publisher, and usually they choose a different publisher in each major territory. So a US publisher may well acquire print and electronic rights for a particular book for the US market only; meanwhile the author (via their literary agent) is shopping around for the best offer and will try their hardest to sell separate rights to publishers in the UK, to Canada, to Australia and translation rights to other countries, and they may or may not sell electronic rights along with print ones. At the moment, the US is leading the way when it comes to ebooks, so any geographic restrictions imposed on the US publisher in a book contract are coded into their ebook files at the time of their conversion and are a layer of the Digital Rights Management (DRM) that virtually all publishers insist on—and with which retailers have no choice but to comply.

Few ‘global’ books

Publishing is increasingly international, with about half a dozen dominant global players (Penguin, Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster), but there are very few global books. Even the most recognisable of international bestsellers will often be published by a different company in each territory (for example, Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy is published by Quercus in UK, and that edition is distributed via Murdoch Books in Australia, but Random House is Larsson’s publisher in the US). In a borderless online world, you can begin to see the problem: if an Australian customer downloads an ebook from Amazon.com in the US, which publisher receives the revenue? Continue reading