A coalition of artists, writers and publishers has written to Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies to challenge the Copyright Amendment Bill, due to be adopted by the National Council of Provinces. By Marelise van der Merwe
The coalition comprises writers, book and music publishers, film directors, producers, musicians, performing artists, film and television workers, content creators and business people.
These include representatives from heavyweights like Kagiso Media, NB Publishers, Sony, Warner, Universal, Juta, the Recording Industry of SA, the Independent Black Filmmakers Collective, Media24 Books, DALDRO, the Music Publishers' Association of SA, the Visual Arts Network of SA, the David Gresham Entertainment Group, the Academic and Non-Fiction Authors' Association of SA, Sony/ATV, Shuter & Shooter, the Publishers' Association of SA (PASA), and Pearson SA.
The Copyright Amendment Bill seeks to update South Africa's four-decade-old copyright law. The Department of Trade and Industry argues it will protect authors, composers, artists and other professionals in the publishing sector, and that it will improve access to educational materials. It has also previously argued the Bill will address a lack of formalisation in the creative industry.
However, the coalition's letter, published in the Sunday Times on March 17, says the Bill has deviated from its "commendable" goals and now carries "unintended negative consequences". The letter lists six key concerns about the Bill, calling it potentially "devastating" to the creative industry.
"You have stated in correspondence to some of our member organisations that 'the cost of procuring educational material in South Africa is very high, therefore flexibilities will be incorporated with teaching exceptions,'" the letter states.
"Our concern is that these 'flexibilities' or exceptions from copyright protection will have a devastating impact on the publishing industries."
Job losses, revenue nosedive
The Bill will lead to job losses, the writers argue, as academic publishing becomes less financially viable, forcing publishers to close. The letter cites an impact assessment by PwC and PASA which found that 1 250 jobs - nearly a third in the industry - would likely be lost due to implementation of the Bill.
The same report, though this is not mentioned in the letter, found that the Bill could see a 33% decrease in sales, equivalent to R2.1bn, plus a decrease in exports of local titles.
The letter argues there will be an additional impact on the film industry, which - according to an National Film and Video Foundation report - in 2017 raised its level of production by over R12bn.
Another concern, according to the letter, is the impact on satellite industries, as the Bill will mean limited revenues for costly projects. "This will have a knock-on effect, damaging the numerous service industries that support productions, especially in the Western Cape."
The Bill also creates "uncertainty around ownership and royalties" by permitting free re-use and therefore threatening production investment, the letter adds.
According to the missive, the Bill is "vague and imprecise", and will need to be tested in courts over several years "requiring content creators to fight to defend rights that should be theirs automatically", which will be costly and time-consuming.
Even where jobs aren't lost, the Bill will cause loss of income to working creatives, the coalition says. "This will remove the incentive to write, produce and publish works, since the Bill allows [work] to be copied and republished with impunity, often free of charge."
Big tech companies will cash in
Related to this is concern over the benefit to international tech corporations, who - according to the coalition - will be able to access and republish creative and research work without having to pay fair royalties or usage fees, and then monetise this content by licensing it or selling advertising around it, without the original creators seeing a cent.
Lastly, the writers say, South Africa's body of knowledge will be reduced rather than increased. "When the publication of academic writing and research no longer pays, South African writers will stop writing, and publishers will stop publishing. This will mean less South African publishing will be available," they argue.
"Imported foreign material will fill the gap, leaving our students to learn generic ideas from the global north, not strictly applicable to the African and South African situation."