Copyright Bill

Image via: The Blue Diamond Gallery

Opponents of dangerous Copyright Bill make a stand in Parliament

The Bill aims to update South African copyright law for the first time since 1978.

Copyright Bill

Image via: The Blue Diamond Gallery

Today will see a very unusual event in Parliament when desperate interest groups lobby politicians against the controversial Copyright Bill – a piece of legislation which could change every South African’s life profoundly.

It is a classic example of the road to hell being paved with good intention – but still being very much the road to hell regardless.

It is also yet another example of how stubbornly the ANC can ignore expert advice and write bad law, thereby risking much financial loss, and how the current governing party excels at building ever more deeply unneeded bureaucratic institutions with secretaries, staff and even more high-pay, low octane civil service positions the country simply does not have the budget for (why do the words National Health Insurance suddenly come up in screaming red letters?).

Details of the contentious Copyright Bill

The Copyright Bill has been passed by both houses of parliament. It is a complicated beast of 67 pages of legalese, much of it, one is sad to say, quite poorly drafted and vague. It aims to update South African copyright law for the first time since 1978, for instance bringing it into the digital age.

The effects of the bill on specifically the South African publishing and film industry will be discussed by those affected by it and by the parliamentary portfolio committee on arts and culture today. Considering that the horse has bolted, parliamentary, it can only be a

Clearly two elements were very important to the drafters of the bill, and to the ANC when they voted for it. Both elements speak of great kindness and dangerous ignorance. These two elements are that indigenous traditional scientific know-how and cultural intellectual property must be safeguarded from exploitation and that the cost of academic study would be so much lower if students could just copy books instead of buying them.

To deal with the first element, the bill creates what it calls “collection societies” for royalties on indigenous knowledge and cultural performance common to a specific group of people.

Only those who bother to belong to these collection societies will benefit.

The cynical might well wonder whether yet another cesspool of corruption, inefficiency, bail-outs, mediocrity and self-enrichment is being created – more so because the mandate entrusted to them is so complicated, the way they will come into being so unclear and exactly how they will be funded so unmentioned. Eventual regulations will apparently decide these important issues, far from the glare of the open parliamentary process.

Incidentally, I pity whosoever has the task of deciding on the competing claims to cultural appropriation and its monetary implications. It opens the door for such greed and self-righteous opportunism. What a nightmare to administer.

Further strain on the budget

The bill also stipulated the strengthening (read: enlargement) of the Copyright Tribunal and then states helpfully that any additional costs “will be accommodated within the current budget”. Quite how, and what will have to be cut from the budget as a result – the budget being a finite and limited resource – is not stated. Easy does it, apparently.

To deal with the second element, free copying of work, for instance academic work, produced in South Africa is made far easier and will become more common. The same does not go for such work produced outside of the country. There could be many terms for this, one of which is “moronic”. At a time when Government claims it wants to “decolonise” education, by the stroke of a pen it will re-colonise it because no-one would be so daft as to publish such books locally at what would amount to a catastrophic financial loss, so all wisdom will come courtesy of foreign input.

Smart work, is it not, from the ANC majority in Parliament?

Predicted losses of R2.1 billion

That same grouping, which, in plain terms, have now been repeatedly told by the Constitutional Court to start doing its parliamentary job in a brighter way, has also failed to grasp the contradiction between the tightening of control regarding indigenous knowledge and cultural products on the one hand, and the relaxation of same with regards to academic publications on the other. The less said about thoughtfulness and logic, the better.

The publications industry and the auditing firm Price Waterhouse Coopers have done an audit which found that the country will lose R2,1 billion and many jobs directly in the publications and film industry in the first year should the bill be published in its current form. It has argued that the will and effort to create – especially in the academic sphere – will dissipate. It has not stated the obvious – that the best academics are, in circumstances which might be unintended but certainly not unforeseen, in effect incentivised to leave the country if they want to publish, given that sustainable academic publication in South Africa will be dead as a dodo should the President sign the bill into law.

Ramaphosa now has three options. He can either sign it into law, which could prove disastrous, or just do nothing, which will mean the bill will gather dust and not be effected, as the so called Secrecy Bill has done since 2011, or he can send this wretched bill back to Parliament for reconsideration.

The country waits.