Monthly Archives: July 2018

Creating a centre for books in Valletta

Books are the most important tool for the educational, cultural and intellectual growth of a society, therefore it was rather disappointing to have witnessed, during the last two decades, the closing down of most of Malta’s independent bookshops.

These bookshops were essential to the local publishing industry’s infrastructure because they acted not only as points of sale, but also as cultural and marketing agents – which today the Maltese book market is lacking. Amazon has in the past been responsible for taking away a large chunk of revenue from independent bookshops, but nowadays, all over Europe, independent bookshops are making a comeback. Despite the surge of online book retail, the independent brick and mortar bookshop is still a perquisite to every book industry infrastructure.

As more people opted to buy books online, local bookshops took a hit and Maltese consumers increasingly became less exposed to Maltese books. Local publishers are now adapting to this market environment by increasing their investment in online websites, pushing home the concept of purchasing Maltese books online. As part of our long-term vision, the National Book Council has supported publishers by investing in the Malta Book Festival to turn it into a major source of revenue for publishers, thus successfully hitting record sales in 2016, and preserving the record sales rate in 2017.

Our sales target for the Book Festival this year is to double it. If on the one hand other new sources of revenue for Maltese publishers are the planned (such as the long-awaited education licences and peripheral book fairs such as the Book Festival on Campus), we believe that no measure other than the creation of a permanent bookshop that acts as a cultural and marketing agent can satisfy the need for a literary space. It is there that, among other things, Maltese literature can have the kind of exposure it both deserves and needs.

Valletta’s last standing bookshops, two of them part of the Agenda book-chain, which practically dominates the retail book industry, are just a handful of pockets of resistance in an increasingly gentrified city. Yet, these pockets are a far-cry from what the local publishing industry needs in terms of exposure and commercial activity. Currently, Valletta provides ample infrastructure for theatre and art, but authors and publishers, which collectively form part of Malta’s biggest creative sector in terms of economic value, are under-represented.

Unfortunately, the exponential rise of property prices in Valletta has basically created a situation where the local publishing industry is prohibited from penetrating the capital city and representing itself equally to other cultural sectors that enjoy an all-year round presence. Currently, Valletta is the only capital city in Europe without a bookshop that doubles as a cultural space. The National Book Council sees it as its proper duty to address this deficiency. Here, it is not only the economic survival of the local publishing industry that is at stake. Given that the local publishing industry is not just a commercial industry, but the main seed from which the intellectual and cultural development of a nation can grow, a book centre that actively promotes its authors and literary-heritage in the capital city is a perquisite for our society itself.

The current government has acknowledged this problem and in order to address it, it has allocated a 16th century baroque palace in Valletta to the National Book Council. We intend to restore the palace to its former glory and turn it into an exceptional book centre accessible to all and free of charge. Apart from hosting the offices of the National Book Council, the palace will be used as a space for a museum of literature, a centre for literary activities and a bookshop leased to a private entity (on the condition that it acts as a cultural and marketing agent).

This new book centre will be a great asset to the local book industry, a major source of revenue for local publishers, a new hangout for youths and a historic attraction for the general public. The book centre will also open its doors to schools and children and serve as an educational hub for the general community. There is no doubt the successful implementation of this project will be one of government’s most important cultural and educational milestones.

Why copyright in the DSM Directive should be saved

The vote of the European Parliament against the European Commission’s proposed Copyright directive in the Digital-Single Market was received with shock by the European publishing and culture industries.

Although the directive itself is complex to the extent that it may be interpreted in different ways, and some of it is admittedly contentious on practical and technical grounds, the directive’s regulatory framework aimed at harmonising copyright laws with the digital and online world, and at shifting the balance of power from online internet institutional and corporate titans in favour of European cultural stakeholders and publishers.

Internet titans such as Google, Mozilla and Wikipedia railed against the directive while the Pirate Party led a Europe-wide campaign against it, citing ‘freedom of expression’ as one of the main concerns. In this vein, Julia Reda, MEP and Pirate Party member has claimed that the directive “would limit freedom of expression, harm independent creators, small publishers and start-ups, and boost fake news – serving, if at all, the special interests of a few big corporations.”

Apart from being empirically incorrect, Reda’s obfuscated perspective on the directive is driven by abstract ideological motivations, and she is wittingly or unwittingly serving internet titans. In reality, the directive provides various safeguards for authors and publishers, including the right of authors to receive full account of their sales, the right of collective bargaining with internet websites for cultural stakeholders and publishers, and the right of authors and publishers to be properly compensated when their work is used for commercial ends on the internet.

The directive also provides various copyright exceptions for education purposes to libraries and heritage institutions while reiterating the right of publishers to negotiate for licences. The latest version, drafted by EU Parliament committee rapporteur Axel Voss, also included a compromise between authors and publishers on article 12.

Articles 11 and 13 seem to have been the most contested articles of the directive and incidentally they are the articles which very clearly shift the balance of power from internet titans to the culture and publishing industry. Article 11 provides a neighbouring right for press publishers and puts an obligation on information-sharing websites to pay press publishers for their use of content. The aim of the article is clearly intended at news aggregation, and the article puts an emphasis on the aspect of commercial use, but critics say that it would affect hit users with a “link tax”.

In reality article 11 does not regulate the base of internet users, and clearly excludes hyperlinking. Instead it provides press publishers the right to negotiate with information-sharing websites for their use of content. Article 11 wouldn’t have affected the general user, but it would have given greater leeway for European publishers to negotiate contracts and licences with US internet titans such as Google. Admittedly, article 11 is contentious on technical grounds given that, if publishers used article 11 to put an obligation on Google for the listing of searches with the aim of offsetting advertising revenues from the use of mobile devices, Google may as well retaliate by removing the publishers’ search results straight away. So, it is true that on practical and technical grounds, article 11 may be very contentious, but on a point of principle, politicians should always be on the side of European press publishers when economic disagreements arise between US internet titans and European publishing and culture industries.

This is not about free speech, or about restricting some kind of information, but about an economic imbalance of power in the online and digital world dominated by US titans. Let’s not delude ourselves that the online world and its economic structures are democratic – they are not. The economic relationships of the online world, that is relationship between the consumer or user and the online seller or provider, are not based on the collective will of millions of internet users. They are instead conditioned by internet monopolies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook, which incidentally today also happen to be some of the biggest companies in the world and as powerful and effective as to provide services and products which have changed our lives and economies.

On the other hand, article 13 does not put an obligation to install upload filters as commonly stated by opponents to the directive, but it does put the burden on internet content-sharing websites to pro-actively prevent protected content from being uploaded and distributed online. Article 13 also gives the right to culture stakeholders to negotiate for licences with internet-content sharing websites and what this means is that internet monopolies may no longer be able to unilaterally set the value of the payments to rights-holders – YouTube is a case in point which forces artists to accept its value of payments unilaterally due to its sheer monopoly power. Such a step would be greatly effective in curbing the tide of power these monopolies are riding and thereby act in favour of our local industries.

Until this vote took place, the EU parliament and the EU Commission had consistently tried to rein in on internet monopolies which are unilaterally setting the market rules. With all its faults and serious economic problems, the EU has proved itself an effective institutional power able to regulate corporate monopolies, and it is in this spirit that the directive should be saved.

Now, European publishers and culture stakeholders should try and take a leading role in pressuring for a reasonable compromise without giving away too much. Certain safeguards could easily be added without compromising the proposed balance of power – there can be safeguards against the link tax that do not jeopardise publisher rights and safeguards against upload filters that would not compromise the liability of content-sharing websites for rights infringement and the illegal sharing of content. It may take some time to conceive of a radical new way the online world would work, but doing nothing is certainly not an option. The massive influx of propaganda against this directive produced by internet titans and delivered by their servants, the Pirate Party, have to be fought back with a strong educational and information campaign.

Statement by the executive chairman of the National Book Council on the EU Directive on copyright in the Digital Single Market

The no vote passed by the European Parliament on the Copyright in the Digital Single Market Directive was unexpected. The directive was a rational compromise between European creators and publishers which, basically, would have harmonised European copyright laws with the online world. The vote has inflicted irreparable damage on European culture industries.

The directive was not going to change the fundamental concepts of copyright use in Europe, but the no vote was unexpected mostly due to the fact that the directive would have provided a series of safeguards for European artists, authors, creators and publishers. Some of these safeguards included economic transparency by publishers, the right of collective management organisations and creators to negotiate licenses with internet content-sharing websites, and the right of authors and publishers to demand royalties on the commercial use of their work.

In some way or another most of the European stakeholders were in favour of the directive, and only the internet pirate movement along with corporate internet giants were campaigning against it. Most of us were surprised to learn that politicians would actually fall prey to the same campaign of obfuscation launched by the pirate movement, which claimed many gullible web users, spreading panic among the poorly-informed. The agitators in this movement seem to be unwittingly or wittingly reckless, wrecking havoc for the sake of promoting a ultimately shallow and banal ideology.

Claims that this directive would have brought a ban on memes and enabled Hollywood firms to tail Facebook users for sharing movie stills are but a few examples of this campaign of obfuscation and misinformation.

Better educational campaigns on copyright are needed for sure. If there is one thing stakeholders in the industry have learned today, it is that copyright needs to be explained and promoted so as to prevent the pirate movement from running roughshod, wrecking the culture industries. As for those who think of themselves as liberals, or leftist, they should think well which side they should subscribe to. There are two options – either you are in favour of empowering artists and creators by supporting their right to increase their labour-value, or you will take the side of those who want to undermine the labour-value of the artists and create a world where memes are the only art form we can enjoy.