When it comes to books and copyright, the government should leave things as they are


David Throsby, Macquarie University

The Australian book industry is in a state of considerable agitation as it waits to see if the federal government will scrap the parallel import restrictions of the Copyright Act.

Lifting the restrictions has been recommended by the Harper Committee and the Productivity Commission, and a decision could come next week, next month, or never.

These regulations restrict the importation of commercial quantities of books without the permission of the copyright holder. There is a strong sense of déjà vu in the current situation. Every few years since the 1980s a recommendation for repeal of these import restrictions has been put to the government of the day and every time the government, whether Coalition or Labor, has rejected it.

The arguments for doing away with them are based on simple economics. The restrictions provide some protection for authors and publishers in the face of international competition. The overall effect is to raise, at least temporarily, the price of books to Australian consumers, though the directly attributable cost increase is uncertain.


Keep reading: Parallel importation and Australian book publishing: here we go again


Nevertheless, any form of protection is anathema to economists as it distorts markets, creates inefficiencies in the allocation of our national resources, and restricts the access of consumers to cheaper supplies of products from abroad.

The cultural exception

So should books be treated differently from anything else? Books are a cultural product, and can be defined as such for the purposes of international trade. Ever since the structure of the world trading system was set up in the 1940s with the establishment of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the forerunner of the present-day World Trade Organisation, a special case for cultural goods and services has been recognised: the so-called “cultural exception”.

The principle behind this concept is the proposition that cultural products are not just commercial merchandise, but embody cultural values that are separate from and additional to their economic value. These cultural values, it is argued, can be shown to be important to society, especially when they represent something about the national culture from which they are derived.


Keep reading: Friday essay: thriving societies produce great books – can Australia keep up?


So the argument concerning Australian books, written by Australian authors about Australian subjects and published by Australian publishers is that they convey such values. Hence, in the context of international trade they should be granted a cultural exception and should not be subject to the same free-trade ideology as other commodities in the global marketplace.


Tarek Mostafa/Reuters

Some hardline economists – including in the Productivity Commission – acknowledge the significance of Australian books to our culture. They’re willing to accept a role for the public sector in ensuring that the cultural contribution of the book industry is maintained, provided that the community agrees that such a role is worth paying for.

The argument here is that if Australian books generate a sufficient level of public-good benefit through their contribution to our collective cultural life – a contribution that cannot be purchased overseas, by the way – this may constitute a case of market failure. Government intervention to correct for it may be justified if the benefits from intervention outweigh the costs.

So far so good, you might think. But it is one thing to agree that some level of support for an industry is justified – and quite another to determine how such support might be provided.

Economists are likely to argue that instead of the blunt instrument of parallel import restrictions, whose beneficiaries may well include many of the “wrong” people, direct fiscal support would be more appropriate because it can be targeted at those who generate the public benefit, such as Australian authors.

Protection through fiscal channels?

If we accept this line of argument, and if the existence of public-good benefits from the Australian book industry is assumed, it can be argued that the best policy action in the present circumstances would be to remove the import restrictions, and replace them with an equivalent level of protection provided through fiscal channels, for example by increasing the levels of financial support provided to writers and publishers of Australian books.

Such a recommendation may have merit in principle, but in the realpolitik of the Australian government today it simply doesn’t stand up. Federal funding for the arts and culture sector has been under considerable pressure in recent years. Even more pointedly, the government last year signalled its attitude to supporting the book industry by abolishing the newly-established Book Council before it had even held its first meeting.


Keep reading: Short shelf life: the Book Council of Australia is stuffed back on the rack


The possibility that the Government would approve a new budget allocation of any significance to compensate authors or publishers following removal of the import restrictions must be regarded as very remote indeed.

Some commentators have argued that import restrictions are a relatively minor issue, particularly when set against other more far-reaching copyright proposals such as the possible introduction of US-style fair dealing – a prospect that would have much more serious implications for the book industry. Nevertheless the recommendation is there, and needs a response.

What to do? To avoid a confrontation with an entire industry and to demonstrate a concern for the health of Australian cultural life, the government could either abolish parallel import restrictions and provide compensatory support for the production, distribution and consumption of Australian books, or it could leave things as they are.

As we have noted, successive Australian governments have in previous years accepted the latter as the appropriate practical and principled strategy. In its own interests, the present government would be well advised to do the same.

The Conversation

David Throsby, Distinguished Professor of Economics, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Book extract: The Mind of the Islamic State


Robert Manne, La Trobe University

Robert Manne’s new book, The Mind of the Islamic State, traces the evolution of the jihadist group’s world view. By poring over Islamic State’s texts, online magazines, and prison accounts by key figures, Manne offers insight into an ideology that most have heard of but few understand. In this extract, Manne unpacks the split between Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian Islamist who led the Sunni insurgency in Iraq following the US-led invasion, was a man of action not of words. There exists, however, one fascinating lengthy letter from him to the leaders of Al Qaeda, dated January 2004, whose purpose was in part to begin what turned out to be a protracted negotiation for his movement’s entry into Al Qaeda.

Zarqawi begins within an apocalyptic frame. In Sham (the ancient name for Iraq and Syria) “the decisive battle between the infidels and Islam is taking place”. As Al Qaeda no doubt already grasps, he continues, the Zionist-led American administration of George W. Bush entered Iraq under “a contract to create the State of Greater Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates”. Their purpose was “to hasten the arrival of the Messiah”.

What is the political situation following the invasion? Zarqawi regards not the Americans but the Shi’as as the overwhelming problem for the Sunnis. They are “the most vile people in the human race”, “the insurmountable obstacle, the prowling serpent, the crafty evil scorpion, the enemy lying in wait”. Throughout history, the Shi’a have stabbed the Muslims in the back. Their religion “has nothing in common with Islam”. Perhaps worst of all, throughout history they have served the interests of the Jews.

What then is to be done? The key, according to Zarqawi, is to provoke a Sunni-Shi’a civil war:

We will trigger their rage against the Sunnis… [forcing them] to bare their fangs… If we manage to draw them onto the terrain of partisan war… soon the [Sunni] sleepers will awaken from their leaden slumber.

Prospects in this struggle are bright. Zarqawi concludes his letter by asking the leaders of Al Qaeda whether they accept his plan. If they do, he promises, they will have his allegiance.

The leaders of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri must have faced a difficult decision in pondering future relations with Zarqawi. On the one hand, the ferocious battle Zarqawi was leading in Iraq was the most promising ever mounted by the Salafi jihadist movement. On the other, the war against the Shi’a Zarqawi was intent to fight represented a radical break in the history of the mujahidin. Clearly however admiration for Zarqawi and a judgment of the political advantages of alignment with him, overcame concern. In December 2004, Al Qaeda accepted the formal allegiance Zarqawi offered.

In July 2005, a long letter was sent by Al Qaeda Central to Al Qaeda in Iraq. All scholars say that this letter was sent directly to Zarqawi from Zawahiri. This cannot be right. Towards its conclusion it reads:

By God, if by chance you’re going to Fallujah, send greetings to Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi.

Most likely, although its contents were intended for Zarqawi, it was sent via another Al Qaeda member.

The Mind of the Islamic State, by Robert Manne, is published by Black Inc Books.
Black Inc Books

The letter documents Al Qaeda’s ambivalence about their new supporter. Zawahiri mounts a series of harsh and fundamental criticisms of Zarqawi’s leadership. The battle for the Islamic State cannot succeed without the support of the Muslim masses. They will never understand the disrespect that has been shown for the Sunni religious leaders. Zarqawi and his followers must not think of ruling on the basis of the mujahidin alone.

Even more sternly, Zawahiri chides Zarqawi for his anti-Shi’a sectarianism. No doubt many Shi’a have behaved treacherously during the American occupation. No doubt their understanding of Islam is deeply mistaken. But the Muslim masses will never understand a program based on the destruction of holy sites or systematic killing, especially of ordinary Shi’a. They will ask: “Can the mujahidin kill all the Shi’a in Iraq?” Zawahiri urges Zarqawi not to be seduced by those who praise him as the “sheikh of the slaughterers.”

Zawahiri’s letter was obviously ignored. Some three months later, a senior Al Qaeda leader, Atiyatullah al-Libi, sent another, far blunter warning. If Zawahiri’s letter concerned Zarqawi’s political mistakes, al-Libi’s concerned the defects of his character. Although this letter is almost unknown in the scholarly literature, it is even more revealing than Zawahiri’s.

Al-Libi’s letter contains a devastating catalogue of the dangers of Zarqawi’s style of leadership. Zarqawi must strive to win the love of the Muslim people. “Do not be harsh with them or degrade them or frighten them.” He must learn to accept disagreement. It does “not require hatred, clashing, hostility or enmity”. He must not become “arrogant” because of praise. His inner circle must avoid “injustice, conceit, haughtiness, superciliousness, excessive harshness and violence.”

Al-Libi reminds Zarqawi that Islam is a religion of “mercy, justice and good deeds”. A balance must be found “between severity and softness, between violence and gentleness”. “Let us not merely be people of killing, slaughter, blood, cunning, insult and harshness”. Zarqawi is warned:

You need to look deeply within yourself and your character.

If he fails to heed these warnings he will be replaced.

It was clear by now that not only through his unrestrained brutality and the expanding circle of what he regarded as permissible under Islamic law but also in his attitude to the Shi’a that Zarqawi had transformed and radicalised the Salafi jihadist tradition.

Zarqawi was killed by the Americans on June 7, 2006. Shortly after his death, his successors fulfilled his wishes by announcing the existence of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). For a time, the warnings al-Libi had issued about the dire political consequences of Zarqawi’s brutal behaviour seemed accurate. The Americans found eager partners among the Sunni tribes in the anti-insurgency movement called the Sahwah, the Awakening.

As a consequence, the Islamic State of Iraq was forced during 2008 to retreat to the arid lands of al-Anbar in the west. One of the wives of a leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, inquired:

Where is the Islamic State you’re talking about? We’re living in the desert.

The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), by now under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, emerged from the desert in 2011 at a propitious moment – the military and political withdrawal of the Americans from Iraq, the increasing persecution of the Sunni by the Shia-dominated government of Nuri al-Maliki, and the descent of Syria into civil war.

ISI began taking territory in the Sunni Triangle and despatched a small force to Syria led by Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, in what became known as the Nusra Front. In April 2013, ISI and the Nusra Front fell out speedily, spectacularly and bloodily after Baghdadi’s unilateral announcement of his leadership of a new political entity called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), covering the lands of both Iraq and Syria.

By this time, Osama bin Laden had been killed by the Americans. Al Qaeda’s new leader, Zawahiri, attempted unsuccessfully to arbitrate the differences, requiring Jolani to limit his authority to Syria and Baghdadi to Iraq. His negotiating team was murdered near Aleppo by members of the Islamic State.

In September 2013, Zawahiri published what he called General Guidelines for Jihad, an apparent and belated attempt to re-assert Al Qaeda’s ideological authority over the global Salafi jihadist movement. Zawahiri reminded the mujahidin that their main struggle must be conducted against the Americans, whose weakening grip on power has been revealed by the Arab Spring. Fighting against “deviant sects”, like the Shi’a, ought also to be avoided except in the case of self-defence and even then only in proportion to the danger posed.

Zawahiri warned the mujahidin to:

refrain from killing non-combatant women and children… from harming Muslims by explosions, killing [or] kidnapping… [and] from targeting enemies in mosques, markets and gatherings where they mix with Muslims or those who do not fight us.

Zawahiri’s guidelines were an attempt to rescue the Salafi jihadist movement from what he regarded as the grievous strategic, jurisprudential and sectarian errors introduced into it in Iraq by Zarqawi and his successors. Its publication formalised an ideological division in Salafi jihadism, between ISIS and Al Qaeda, as fundamental as the split that tore the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks apart in the years before the Russian Revolution.

The Mind of the Islamic State is published by Black Inc. Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor of Politics and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University.

The Conversation

Robert Manne, Personal Chair in Politics, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.