Divide and Conquer
Our present world has been shaped by many historical accidents which have become entrenched in boundaries which now make little sense.
In 1494, Pope Alexander VI settled an argument between the great exploring nations of Spain and Portugal by ruling a line down the middle of the Atlantic. All newly discovered lands to the west of this line would be owned by Spain, those to the east of this line could be owned by Portugal. The native inhabitants of these places, of course, were not to get much say in this.
At this time, two years after the return of Columbus, very little of what we now know as the Americas had been discovered; the Pope was not to know that a large part of the landmass of South America bulged well to the east of the line he had drawn. But the Portugese quickly discovered that fact and colonised what is now Brazil.
So it is that today the people of Brazil speak Portugese, while all the rest of South America speaks Spanish. It is hard to imagine that situation ever changing.
Another example is the modern city of York in the north of England. Its winding streets, and even the property lines dividing modern-day houses and shops, are shaped by historical decisions going back to the days when it was occupied by the Vikings or even earlier. Unless there is wholesale buying up and clearance of those properties, those boundaries may last for another thousand years.
And yet another example is the remnants of old empires, such as the British Empire. I am old enough to remember school atlases and globes with all of the countries belonging to the British Empire shown in red – the ‘Empire on which the sun never sets’.
The British Empire is, of course, now long gone, though in the shape of the Commonwealth – meant to be a loose, voluntary association of states – it still has some present day form. Australia, where I live, was part of the Empire and is now part of the Commonwealth.
But this relict of the past still has enormous influence in one area of modern life – copyright and publishing. Here the boundaries seem set as eternally as those of the language zones of South America or the property boundaries of York.
When an author sells a book to a publisher, he or she signs a contract assigning the publisher copyright – literally, the right to copy the work. Though that right is generally as broad as the publisher can get away with, it is spelled out to cover particular geographic areas of the world. And this is where those relict boundaries are still in place – the British Empire still lives!
I’m certainly speaking generally, and I know there are exceptions, but as a consumer the way I understand it is that a British or Commonwealth publisher has the right to copy and sell a book anywhere within the old Empire’s boundaries. An American publisher will be able to sell a book almost anywhere except within those boundaries. Between them, they divide up the English-language speaking world rather in the same way as the Pope divided up the world between the Spanish and the Portugese.
But in today’s ‘flattened‘ world of the Internet, these boundaries no longer make any sense, and in fact result in many very silly situations.
Here’s an example.
Let’s take Michael Connelly’s first novel about Harry Bosch, “Black Echo”. The UK publisher of the paperback is Orion Publishing Group, the hardback Headline Book Publishing.
The US paperback publisher is Grand Central Publishing, the hardback Little, Brown and Company.
So, living in Australia, I can only get to buy one of the UK editions, unless I use the Internet to buy a US edition from Amazon. This is frowned on by the British publishing companies, and by the Australian authorities in charge of intellectual property, but it’s not actually forbidden. If the UK edition is out of print, then the Australian authorities do allow me to ask my bookseller to import the US edition, thanks to some recent relaxations due to our consumer affairs authority.
There’s also an audiobook version, available from Audible.
But wait!! Can I buy the audiobook? No, because apparently it’s based on the US edition, and can’t be sold to me, who lives in the old British Empire. Is there a British audiobook edition available online? Not that I can find. Does this mean that I can buy the only audiobook edition available to me? Not on your life. I’m in the British Empire and so I get to buy – nothing.
Now, in whose interests is this silly situation? No-one’s interest.
I am not wanting to do something illegal. I want to make a perfectly legal purchase of an item on the Internet. I want to give a publisher (and hence the author) my actual cash. Can I get the e-book any other way? No. So the old relict boundaries are preventing me from giving the author my money. What the…?
And this, of course, is only one example, in the book publishing world. Don’t get me started on other examples, such as the nonsense of DVD region coding (whose brilliant idea was it to put Hong Kong and China into two different DVD regions?).
These kinds of restrictions, as pointed out in this article, just create incentives to find ways around them, almost certainly ending up meaning that the original creator gets nothing.
If the world is flat, if this is the era of globalisation, these boundaries have to be broken up, history or not.