Angelo Loukakis kicked off last week’s First Friday Club with a brassy iPhone recording of jazz clarinettist, Edmond Hall. Hall played in Louis Armstrong’s All Stars band in the 1950s, and indeed, was a famous New Orleans jazz, Swing, and big band performer in his own right. His frenetic clarinet rendition of Sweet Georgia Brown delighted our audience of members—acting as a virtuosic din from which an equally energetic discussion took shape.
The essence of that discussion evolved from a simple reflection on the writer as the producer and owner of intellectual property. And from this platform our members were asked to consider further questions about the physical and conceptual existence of their own work in the community, what intellectual property meant in the age of digitisation and the ways in which that property could continue to be handled ethically in the face of rapid changes to the structure of its dissemination.
Angelo has worked as a teacher, scriptwriter, editor and publisher. While he is currently Executive Director of the ASA (Australian Society of Authors), he has also been a member of the Literature Board of the Australia Council and former chair of the NSW Writers’ Centre. Given this, Angelo was in a unique position to provide an intricate context and brought a wealth of knowledge to many issues that directly concern our membership, including copyright, personal promotion, intellectual property and the writer’s relationship to new media.
Quite early in our discussion, the question was put to Angelo, ‘what is your definition of an author?’ His response was typically pragmatic. An author was someone who should receive remuneration for any written work being used in a public arena, although this was by no means a given. But going further than this, he insisted on perceiving the writer in an even broader framework. In essence, the roles and responsibilities of writers, and the nature of their intellectual property, are as rapidly changing as the industries and technologies that disseminate their work. Our consequent definition of a writer must be fluid.
A writer is a ‘scribe’ or wordsmith, a worker, and an entrepreneur. Indeed, in Loukakis’ terminology, a writer’s ‘work’ is anything that is ‘issued in the public arena’—whether that be a twitter post, a journal article, an Amazon e-book or a print novel. Given this fluidity in the modes of artistic production, where blockages between the written word and its distribution as an ‘authored’ work are less and less present, so too does the concept of intellectual property become more problematic.
Changes to copyright laws and legislation are ever evolving, and bodies that work to protect writers, such as the ASA and Australian Copyright Council, as well as international bodies such as the UK Society of Authors, the US Authors Guild, the Writers’ Union of Canada and others all must adapt constantly to keep up. WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation), for example, has introduced the possibility of a new International Treaty that Angelo tells us may override national copyright law and compel authors to give their work up for sight-impaired readers in the developing world, without a specific request or permission. Obviously, this treaty requires a detailed level of examination from writers and copyright professionals in order to understand its full implications.
It was clear that our members were anxious about the capacity of intellectual property to be regulated in the increasingly digital world. Yet, Angelo made another salient point here. There isn’t a historical vacuum when it comes to the shape and role of a writer’s work in the public sphere—or the dangers that it faces. Ever since the first claims of ownership over intellectual property began to take shape, the definitions and boundaries of those claims were already evolving to accommodate technological, political and social change.
As confirmed by our Executive Director, Jane McCredie, previously a publisher at NewSouthBooks, it was less than 30 years ago that the landscape of modern Australian publishing began to establish itself. While a relatively new industry, it is already facing huge challenges to the way it has modelled itself, for example, to compete with the offshore pricing of online print stores like Amazon. There has been as little semblance of a static business model for the publishing industry as there has for writers themselves.
A final impression then, was of the continuing responsibility of the writer to involve themselves in the task of disseminating their own work. It is their ability to engage actively with the readership into which their work ‘issues’ that dictates their potential reach. Regardless of the forum in which work is being produced, perhaps more than ever, writers have the power to make themselves relevant. They can control the way they represent themselves, even if their access to concrete, fiscal rewards may be as ephemeral as ever. While that presence is not solely accessed through new media platforms, this certainly can be an integral and empowering method.
This discussion left us with an image of the writer as a shape-shifter. Someone who is required to possess a cast of talents going well beyond the already extraordinarily difficult task of expunging a piece of writing from their heads. An adaptability and flexibility towards change is imperative, and accordingly, writers continue to benefit from and rely on organisations that provide support and information in the defence of their intellectual property—or in other words, their blood, sweat and tears.
The Australian Society of Authors promotes and protects the interests of all creators of literary and dramatic work covering all those who write, illustrate or design for publication. To find out more about the ASA please visit their website.
Ellen Tyrrell, NSWWC