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Books Etcetera

by Edmund Campion

Realising the Vision

Gus O'Donnell knew one big thing and it changed his life, at the same time enriching the lives of many others. A farmer's son from Western Victoria, he became a patrol officer in New Guinea, where he spent World War II in administration and then, postwar, resigned because he thought the Australian government was unjust to New Guineans. He wrote a novel about his experiences and so joined the Australian Society of Authors (ASA). At the time authors were cranky that ownership of their books' copyright wasn't well protected. With an Irish sense of justice, Gus believed that writers should be paid properly for their work and he decided to do something about it. Through the ASA he set up an auction group, the Australian Copyright Council, which would work to maximise the take home pay of writers. What does that mean? It means that they looked hard at our laws, to close loopholes and ensure better coverage; they lobbied the government for adequate tribunals; they kept their eyes on new developments in technology in case these outstripped authors' protection.

New models of photocopying machines were then crowding the marketplace, their makers boasting of their ability to reproduce whole books and hence rip off authors. Universities were complicit in this offensive behaviour for they encouraged students to photocopy multiples of poems and prose texts without paying the creators one cent. Challenged on their malfeasance, vice-chancellors stared down O'Donnell and his allies: he was a little man and they were giants. Prove it, the vice-chancellors jeered. So the O'Donnell team went out to the University of NSW, whose vice-chancellor had been particularly pugnacious, and garnered evidence that a Frank Moorhouse story and been photocopied there without payment to Moorhouse or his publishers. A breach of copyright? The University of NSW fought hard but in the end the High Court found that UNSW had authorized an illegal act. (Strangely, this shameful story is missing from the official history of UNSW.)

How to collect and distribute royalties from such copying? To answer this question Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) came into being, in 1974. It still wasn't easy going, for educational authorities stonewalled because they knew that every year's delay saved them money. But Gus O'Donnell knew something too - that he was fighting for justice; and this big thing sustained him even though CAL nearly went broke. It took ten years before justice prevailed, at great human cost, a story Peter Meredith tells well in Realising the Vision, a history of the first 30 years of CAL, just published. Nor does he disguise the human cost, for Gus O'Donnell fell out with some of his allies and, after 17 years of battling, found himself on the outer. Nevertheless when CAL got its first big royalty payment (from Macquarie University in 1986) Michael Fraser, a philosopher who had replaced Gus O'Donnell, sent the founder a copy of the cheque with a letter saying, "The victory is in large part a result of your vision and efforts." Good one, Michael: vision plus effort gets results. This is not the end of the story, for as communications technology became more complex, CAL had to match its complexities if it were to remain effective. In his masterly account, Peter Meredith explores the growth of specialisms and particular expertise in CAL in a way that makes sense of the technical complexity and leaves you wanting to know more. CAL is now the fourth biggest copyright agency in the world; it has distributed close to $300 million to its members. If you go to a CAL meeting today you'll see many more suits and corporate types than poets. Gus O'Donnell, who died in 1989, might feel lost there; but if he stayed around I think he'd agree that his vision was being realised.

Why do I write about this in Online Catholics? Here's why. In church these days you often hear the word justice. It's a sign of a shift in Catholic spirituality, from endurance and suffering to an active role in realising the kingdom of God. In one sense there's nothing very new about this. The Biblical "justice" texts which now get so much prominence in sermons, liturgical banners, magazine articles and protest placards, were always there, in the Bible, waiting to be put to use. Luke's Gospel is not a modern book and Isaiah is even older. More than sixty years ago, the Australian Bishops began putting their names to an annual Social Justice Statement to be distributed on "Social Justice Sunday". Signposts to the future, these justice statements were attempts to change the climate of opinion in Australia, to engage in debate and conversation about what Australia might become. Quite properly, the bishops kept to the level of ideas, leaving to others the implementation of their rhetoric.

Rhetoric, however, is never enough. Vision is a necessary part of being human but it needs to be given legs... a body... flesh - whatever metaphor you choose, it means getting down to the costive business of making ideas work: committees, reports, surveys, debate, compromise. In other words, to get serious about achieving justice, it's necessary to follow the Gus O'Donnell track. In the real world ideas and ideals need institutions to achieve anything. To describe this need Karl Weber a century ago coined the phrase "the routinisation of charisma" and he gave as an example the way the Catholic Church had organised the vision of Jesus so that it survived. It's a grounding truth for all who want to make justice happen, as Gus O'Donnell knew.

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