In Australia, U.S. copyright law has an outsized presence in debates about copyright reform. Center research launched last week contributed evidence to an often all-too-evidence-free controversy.

“Imagination Foregone: A Qualitative Study of the Reuse Practices of Australian Creators” shows that for Australian creators, copyright law can hurt as much as help. Conducted by three Queensland University of Technology researchers and Center research fellow Patricia Aufderheide, it was funded by the Australian Digital Alliance (ADA), which represents “copyright users and innovators in a digital world.” Authors Kylie Pappalardo, Jessica Stevens and Nicolas Suzor were present at its release in Canberra at the annual ADA Forum, attended by many policymakers.

Australian copyright law has extremely narrow exceptions, unlike in the US. Here, fair use helps both digital entrepreneurship (think search engines) and recombinant digital culture as well as scholars and journalists. You can’t even operate a search engine in Australia; Google beams its searches into Australia from Singapore. You can’t quote anyone or anything in a book without getting permission. You can quote without permission for breaking news, but not for a weekly news roundup. Did your documentary incidentally capture a TV in the background? Too bad, you’ll have to get permission from the copyright owners of the program on it.

This study was grounded in interviews with 29 writers, musicians, visual artists, online video creators, game designers, and other media makers. It shows that:

  • Creators are confused by Australian law.Some believe Australia has fair use, and then discover otherwise the hard way. Others misinterpret. In one case, filmmakers completed an entire film believing that Australia’s journalistic exceptions covered them—wrong. They couldn’t distribute the film.
  • They typically use fair-use logic, not the logic of Australia’s copyright law. Their own ethical standards appear to align better with fair-use, when they employ common-sense values to their decisions about copyright. They also highly value attribution, and don’t believe copyright always leads to respect for artists.
  • They either pay for expensive copyright fees, or have to delay or change the work. One composer could not get a poet to answer a letter asking to pay for permission (permission arrived a year after his performance date); he had to scramble for a makeshift solution for his lyrics.
  • Frustrations lead creators to get over or give up. When creators find the law unworkable, sometimes they just cross their fingers and violate the law. But sometimes they just give up on their projects.
  • Australian history and culture gets neglected. Australian creators expressed frustration that they couldn’t tell the story of Australian popular music, or regional history, because of copyright problems. They believed that copyright kept Australians from the cutting edge of recombinant culture. They thought copyright kept independent and small-budget creators from participating in the future of Australian culture.

Although the Australian Digital Alliance (ADA) is pro-fair use, the report doesn’t make policy recommendations, but rather documents that the current situation is not only expensive monetarily for Australian creators but costly to the entire society. It includes an acknowledgement of funding and statement of independence from ADA policy agenda by all of the researchers. Patricia Aufderheide’s participation in the study was primarily enabled by the Fulbright Senior Research Fellowship she held at Queensland University of Technology in spring 2017, although the ADA paid for travel costs associated with this study and with showcasing other related work.