So here we are reinventing the wheel… Is the 70-year copyright rule destroying Australian political culture? #auspol

English: Bust of twelfth Prime Minister of Aus...

English: Bust of twelfth Prime Minister of Australia en:Robert Menzies by sculptor Wallace Anderson located in the en:Prime Minister’s Avenue in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens. Photo taken by WikiTownsvillian (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you live in the United States, you can — with very little difficulty — access the words which were written at the birth of the nation.  It’s a quick Google search to find, for example, the Federalist Papers — the essays written by several framers of the US Constitution.  I can download a copy to my iPad from Project Gutenberg.  If I’m feeling contrary, the Anti-Federalist Papers are also available to me.  If I want to go completely nuts and read what the French were thinking about US independence, I can grab a free copy of Montesquieu‘s Spirit of Laws digitised for my reading pleasure.

Similarly if you live in the United Kingdom, the textual evidence of the arguments, debates, and philosophies which forged the modern Britain.  Bagehot’s The English Constitution (second edition, natch) comes in PDF form. What about Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England?  Boom.  Science.  If I thought a joke on Family Guy was particularly fascinating, I can even find most of the works of Benjamin d’Israeli over at Project Gutenberg as well.

Australians have no such luck.

Tonight, I was looking for a copy of Robert Menzies’ speech, The Place of a University in the Modern Community.  This was a 1939 speech that Menzies delivered at the Canberra University College (18 years before the Murray Report and 26 years before the Martin Inquiry).

I can only find excerpts:

In office, Menzies harboured a deep reverence for universities, as expressed in his early speech on the place of a university in the modern community. Given in 1939, when “barbaric philosophies of blood and iron [were] resurgent” throughout Europe and the Pacific, Menzies asked what we should expect of a true university. His answers, seven in number, were that the university must:

  • be a home of pure culture and learning (p.11);
  • serve as a training school for the professions (p.19) . . . (leavened by) . . . scholarship and sensibility (p.21);
  • [ensure] mutuality between the theory and the practice (p.22);
  • be the home of research . . . [requiring] . . . infinite patience, precise observation, an objective mind and unclouded honesty (p.25);
  • be a trainer of character (p.26);
  • be a training ground for leaders (p.27); and
  • be a custodian of mental liberty, and the unfettered search for truth (p.30).

He continued:
to me a rugged honesty of mind that does not (p.31) shrink from the truth . . . (is) . . . one of the noblest of virtues; a glib dishonesty of mind which argues to a predetermined conclusion, determined in the light of passion or prejudice or selfishness, has always seemed to me the most contemptible of vices (p.32). [Source]

Historically significant speech.  No copies available.

As part of my Chief Justice Series, I’ve been fortunate enough to own some primary source material — but it’s not easy to find.  One Chief Justice in particular was an eloquent, subtle, and deeply rewarding writer: Sir Owen Dixon.  He was one of the world’s leading jurists, and perhaps one of the greatest people Australia ever produced.

If you want to read his speech, Jesting Pilate, you better hope you have a copy in your university’s library.

Ibidem, the writings of Sir Isaac Issacs.

The best we’ve got available is Hansard.  The Constitutional debates are all there, but it seems like a partial story, a fragment of the larger world of Australia’s federation and early political development.

So what’s the problem?  Part of the problem is copyright.

Merely 104 years since Federation, Australia entered into the Australia US Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) in 2004, and legislation was passed making its terms effective from 1 January 2005.  Under the current scheme, if you write something and hold the copyright, the copyright expires 70 years after your death.  Prior to 2005, it expired 50 years after your death.

Thus, the magic date is 1 January 1955.  If you died prior to 1/1/55, the copyright expired prior to the new legislation.  If you died after 1/1/55, copyright is granted until 2025, at least.

Owen Dixon died in 1972, so we’re not going to see his works in the public domain until 2042.  Menzies died in 1978, so it won’t be until 2048 that we will see Google digitally upload his writings.  It won’t be until 2048 that we will be able to obtain a copy of The Place of a University in the Modern Community.

Compare this with Winston Churchill.  He died in 1965 and you can already obtain his writings through Project Gutenberg.

The other problem is a lack of curation.  Isaac Isaac’s writings are in the public domain, but they are hidden away at the National Library of Australia, or in university collections.  Similarly, the writings of Sir Samuel Griffith, whose beard wrote the Constitution.  Sir Sam — as we all no doubt remember from my excellent hagiographical blog entry — even translated Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The lack of easily accessible Australian writing is crippling our ability to debate politics.  When young Australians want to ask ‘How did our predecessors address this issue?’ they are left wanting.  When young Australians want to feel inspired by the writings of the forebears, they are left wanting.  When young Australians want to understand their place in history, on the shoulders of amazing people who crafted a distinctly Australian response to the international intellectual climate of their time, they are left wanting.

And it’s a disgrace.

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One thought on “So here we are reinventing the wheel… Is the 70-year copyright rule destroying Australian political culture? #auspol

  1. Pingback: Pouring their derision on anything we did… On @NickOsbaldiston and the public role of academics #auspol | Only The Sangfroid

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