Leading authors sound alarm over post-Brexit changes to copyright

Philip Pullman and Kate Mosse among writers warning that changes being considered could flood UK with cheap foreign editions and threaten livelihoods

Bestselling writers including Philip Pullman and Kate Mosse are warning of a “potentially devastating” change to the UK’s copyright laws that could damage authors’ livelihoods by flooding the UK market with cheap foreign editions.

The Intellectual Property Office launched a consultation this week into the UK’s approach to copyright in the wake of Brexit. One option under consideration would see a change to the “copyright exhaustion” rule, which governs when the control of a rights holder over the distribution of their property expires. For example, if a customer buys a book, then the owner of the book’s copyright would not then be able to prevent the customer selling that book to another person in the same territory.

As part of the EU single market, a first sale within the European Economic Area has been the point at which the copyright owner can no longer control onward distribution, but Brexit means the rules for the UK are being reconsidered. Authors and publishers fear that changing the rules could mean that cheap international editions of a book would pour into the UK, eroding the money authors could make from a domestic sale.

Pullman warned that, after Brexit, “the rules that have governed copyright are vulnerable to change, and authors could lose this precious ability to sell their work abroad and be fairly paid for it”.

He urged the government to “realise the huge importance of copyright law, not only to individual authors (the vast majority of whom are not rich and famous) but also to the world reputation of British writing and the book trade in general”.

“Copyright is simple to understand in principle: authors should have the right to earn a living from their work. If people like their books and buy them, authors should benefit, and the law should support their right to do that,” said the His Dark Materials author. “We must secure the future of the book as well as the past, and the way to do that is to stand firmly behind the principle of copyright. Authors must have the right to a fair reward.”

Mosse, author of the bestselling Labyrinth and founder of the Women’s prize, said: “If we don’t ensure writers remain respected for their work, then many will be forced to leave the industry and Britain’s cultural landscape will suffer hugely.”

“It will become less diverse, less innovative, less inspiring,” said Mosse. “Copyright is the bedrock of authors’ earnings and ensures that everyone – whatever their background, their genre of writing – is properly remunerated for their talent.”

The Publishers Association warned that a change to copyright laws could “significantly impact” authors’ livelihoods, with author royalties on export sales much lower than for books published for the UK market. It believes changes could also damage the British high street, with online retail giants such as Amazon benefiting by importing cheap foreign editions to UK readers, at the expense of bricks and mortar bookshops.

“This is a critical moment and the biggest threat to our industry post-Brexit. The strength of the UK’s copyright laws is key to ensuring authors and publishers are paid for their work. Weakening these laws would be devastating to authors’ income and the wider UK book industry, resulting in fewer books, by fewer authors, for fewer readers,” said chief executive Stephen Lotinga.

The government is currently seeking views on the UK’s future rules for the exhaustion of intellectual property rights. Secretary of state for business Kwasi Kwarteng, announcing the consultation, said: “The UK now has the regulatory freedom to choose our own exhaustion of IP rights regime and it is right to examine carefully whether the current arrangements best serve UK interests.”


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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