A rant about ABC’s copyright policies

The other day, frustrated that while I could read ABC reporters comments on Twitter about an ABC news program, I wasn’t permitted — by ABC — to watch that program outside of Australia, I announced that I would no longer contribute to their online site. That is, exit. That boycott lasted all of 30 seconds when I switched to voice and offered to write a piece complaining about the ABC on their own site. To their credit, they accepted and it was published here.

Blocking the Expats: It’s not my ABC

Joshua Gans, The Drum, 25th August 2010

There is an old Seinfeld bit where he notes, on a late flight, that the pilot announced that they will “make up time in the air.”

Seinfeld wonders, “well, isn’t that interesting? Why don’t they just go as fast as possible all of the time?”

I thought of that on Saturday morning (my time here in Boston) when a tweet from Mark Scott informed us that ABC News 24 online would be lifting all international copyright restrictions for their election coverage. I thought, “well, isn’t that interesting?”

The image accompanying this article is usually what I see from this distance. Now I had figured that the reason for the block was that sometimes the ABC broadcast news from other parts of the world that was copy protected and so could not just choose to block whenever it wanted. But the Election Night action demonstrates that is not the case.

So my question is: why not just go? Why doesn’t the ABC turn on and off blocking when it needs to rather than all of the time?

Some three quarters of a million Australians live outside of the country. There are surely others who might take an interest in Australia. But for some reason, our public broadcaster — for which my tax dollars still fund (by the way) — chooses to shirk that constituency. This is a constituency that does not have great alternative options precisely because the ABC is responsible for much of the self-produced news and talk shows. I am forced to sit reading 140 character tweets from Jonathan Green (The Drum‘s editor) in order to find out what is going on on Q&A. Suffice it to say, he tries but it isn’t really a satisfying or informative experience.

Public providers should occupy space that private markets do not cover. For international expats, surely there is a case to be made for under provision. After all, Aussie ads aren’t that relevant to me right now. And let me not get started on the content on iView. The same issue applies.

Surely it cannot be hard to work this out. For one, if I provide some proof of residency (perhaps a tax file number), maybe I could register to receive all content unblocked. Otherwise, can’t the ABC at least turn off the block for its own local programming? It is an issue of access.

The ABC needs to take a long hard look at itself and its mission. The technology exists for greater access and it should be falling over itself to utilise it. I vote and am even asked to comment on Australian economics for outlets such as The Drum. Can its readers really rely on someone who is blocked from consuming ABC journalism? Either that reporting is valuable or it isn’t. The ABC needs to make the call.

Joshua Gans is an economics professor at Melbourne Business School and a visiting scholar at Harvard University. This may be his last contribution to The Drum.

6 thoughts on “A rant about ABC’s copyright policies”

  1. From my wife who has been responsible for the copyright for a major exhibition at a museum and friends who’ve been responsible for similar copyright issues, it’s far from simple. For example, say you have a documentary produced by the ABC, they might use a range of sources, each one will need to be tracked down and and permission provided (even if there is no money involved) and each permission to use may have completely different conditions and permission to use on the Internet is often even trickier. In my wife’s exhibition, the website for the exhibition didn’t use a whole range of materials that were granted permission to be used in the exhibition itself and in the printed material for the exhibition as it was just too difficult. This can be as simple as a picture hanging on a wall that has the copyright belonging to someone else.
    I imagine that the ABC by default works on an Australia only basis for its copyright when getting permissions, so 1) that will be cheaper, 2) it avoids entanglement with a range of other country only copyright permissions. Now, you’re right that there is probably quite a bit of material that is copyright safe but it’s not a simple issue to determine this and they have probably decided to play it safe and not publish anything. Copyrights are like something out of Dungeons and Dragons, there is this nightmarish labyrinth filled with monsters to devour you and deadly traps to bring you down.
    I was astonished at the amount of effort my wife was required to do just to get reproduction permission for one painting.
    Mary Beard has a couple of illuminating blog posts on this issue:
    Overall, while the technology is available, the legal framework that the ABC has to work in is very restrictive, so I don’t think that this is anywhere near as easy a call for the ABC to make as you think


  2. Interesting.  This raises the question of what public services we should provide our expats.  If they’re not paying taxes in Australia, it’s difficult to justify providing them much beyond the services they get through embassies and consulates isn’t it?  By the way, I don’t think you’re missing much by not being able to watch Q&A.  No one really has any idea how this thing will play out, and we won’t know until the votes are all counted.


  3. >> If they’re not paying taxes in Australia, it’s difficult to justify providing them much beyond the services they get through embassies and consulates isn’t it?
    Gene, as an Australian overseas, that has got to be the most foolishly short-sighted perspective possible. A government that wants its highly skilled professional expats to maintain a strong sense of linkage to events back home, in the interest of increasing the likelihood they will potentially one day come back and pay tax again (and invest, and spend), might want to look beyond a 1 week timeframe.


  4. This situation isn’t unique to the ABC. The BBC blocks some of its sites to residents outside the UK. And more pertinently, I can easily order a CD from overseas, but if I go to Amazon USA or UK and attempt to (actually) purchase and download music I am blocked in Australia.

    Copyright enforcement seems to be inconsistently applied. The hubris about supporting expats has little to do with it.


  5. FYI: The Dutch apparently have a dedicated website broadcasting public channels for its citizens abroad:  http://www.bvn.nl/


  6. This article is very informative but also helpful at the same time. You always find blog posts that are interesting to a point but go on a bit but well done for including energy saving advice that people can actually implement,


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