That thud sound you just heard was my jaw hitting the floor. Nate Hoffelder on The Digital Reader just posted an article about a report issued by an Australian government committee officially recommending that Australian citizens ignore geographic restrictions and buy digital content from other countries because it’s so expensive to buy it in Australia proper. (Weird that it comes so soon after another Australian government commission said there was nothing wrong with Apple’s high e-book prices, but I guess nobody said every part of a government had to agree.)

The report even recommended amending Australia’s copyright law to make it explicitly legal to do this, and said that the government should teach its citizens how to do it!

And it gets better from there. The next recommendation is that Australian laws be amended so that consumers have a clear right to sell the digital content they legally purchased (I am not making that up, I swear), and that consumer protection laws should be amended so that geo-restrictions in terms of use contracts are legally unenforceable in Australia.

Can they do that? Seriously? I thought the Berne Convention specifically said everyone has to play nice with everyone else’s copyright laws. But then there were cases like Antigua, which the World Trade Organization said was permitted to disregard United States copyrights in retaliation for the US forbidding Internet gambling via Antiguan companies. Is this the beginning of a return to the days of the 19th century, when countries happily ignored other countries’ copyright laws and Charles Dickens had to tour the US and reach out to readers personally to make sure he got paid for his books?

Well, probably not. It would take a lot more countries ignoring others’ laws than just Australia to make that happen. But what gets me is that it’s necessary for Australia’s government to tell its people to buy from overseas where it’s cheaper. I mean, you would think they’d try to see what could be done to make that media cheaper in Australia so that Australian businesses could earn their money from Australian customers. There must be some government policies contributing to it, right?

Except that, in the part of the committee’s report looking at why prices were higher in Australia, it concluded that this was due at least in part to price discrimination “in the form of brand owners or international suppliers/manufacturers charging higher prices to Australian retailers relative to the prices they charge to similar retailers in other regions. These comparatively higher international supplier prices are then passed on to consumers.”

Although Australia does have higher labor costs, “the Committee is of the view that in many instances these higher costs cannot, even cumulatively, explain the price differences consumers experience in relation to many IT products, and especially those delivered via the internet.” That being the case, it’s easy to understand why they might recommend Australian consumers circumvent region protection and buy from wherever the goods are cheapest. If those bums are going to charge us more, we’ll just pay the rates their customers do instead.

There might be a certain degree of “shot fired across the bow” inherent in this report, of course. Perhaps they mean it as a warning to try to get the rest of the world to pay attention, staking out an extreme position they can back down from in return for concessions from elsewhere. It’s hard to imagine Australia urging its citizens to circumvent other nations’ region protection would exactly go unnoticed or unprotested in the UN and the WTO.


  1. I have no doubt that Australians are discriminated against as to book prices. So are Canadians. Look at the back of a hard cover book and note the difference in US and Canadian suggested list price. Would it not be more fruitful for the government to pursue the publishers who are making the higher prices?

  2. I think that the most likely consequence if the Australian goverment actually implements this report is that the Australian subsidiaries of foreign publishers will go out of business.

    These subsidiaries get most of the books they publish from their international parent. They print paper books locally (small print runs / high unit costs). They also sell fewer ebook copies of each title than are sold, for example, in the UK or the USA. The revenue from this smaller market must, however, pay the salaries and other expenses of a publishing house.

    The simple way to make ends meet is to charge more per copy.

    If the customers are allowed, let alone encouraged, to buy from offshore suppliers, then the publishing houses will not be able to make ends meet and will go out of business.

    Whether this would be good or bad for publishing in Australia (or Canada or New Zealand or any other small market) could be debated endlessly.

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