The PIR Debate and the Dead Cat Poem

PIR. It stands for Parallel Import Restriction. The Dead Cat poem is another matter altogether.

PIR is used by the major English speaking nations to protect copyright in their own country. It means that a book published in that country has prime right to sales and the same book published in another country has to stay clear. The main users or PIRs on books are the UK, US, Canada, and Australia.

The effect of PIR is that if I write a book here in Australia, and it is published both here and in the US, the Australian booksellers can only sell the local version. US books are cheaper because of matters of scale – after all the US population is 300 million compared to 20 million for Australia. That makes the reader market fifteen times bigger, resulting in lower print costs.

Here in Australia the debate is hot and strong on whether the govt should scrap its PIR legislation. A coalition of three major retailers are for getting rid of it and are pushing the govt. Publishers and authors are against scrapping it.

The retailers say it will bring cheaper prices to the consumer because they will be able to sell cheaper US books instead of locally printed books. That’s an interesting comment from the ones who keep raising prices for groceries and petrol at the same time they are screwing down on the food suppliers and world oil prices are dropping. Last time I looked these companies were more concerned about a high share value than cheaper prices to consumers.

There is another factor in this debate. It’s about national identity. Australian authors write books on Australian life for the Australian market. Such books rarely sell into foreign markets without some serous revision. This is particularly true when it comes to the US market.

US spelling is different from Australian spelling. US idioms are different. US community norms are different. US life is different. And a book that makes sense in Australia will not carry well into the US. Most Australian books are changed for the American market. They suffer changes to spelling, to place names, to character names, to ethnic identities, to social mores, to plot themes, to behaviours regarding politeness, and such.

It is ironic that the country that floods the world with violent movies will clamp down on children’s picture books such that some publishers do not allow pictures of fathers kissing their children.

Oh yeah, just a reminder – I haven’t forgotten about the Dead Cat Poem. Be patient.

Jacki French is an iconic Australian children’s author. She has a wonderful book called The Diary of a Wombat. When it was taken to the US they wanted to change the wombat to an American animal. Jackie refused to allow it. They wanted to change the language so the wombat didn’t ‘demand’ carrots at the farmhouse door but politely asked for them, just as American kids should be trained to do. Jackie refused. Other editing scrubs were sought, Jackie refused them all. She stood her ground. The book became a hit in the US as it was in Australia.

Now imagine that those changes had been made. And an Australian bookseller had the choice of selling the local version or the US version. Suddenly there is an iconic Australian childrens book that has no bearing on Australian life at all.

Before we go to the Dead Cat poem, whatever that’s about, just one more thing. Peter Macinnis is an Australian science writer. When one of his books was transmogrified for the US market his reference to ‘the US Civil War’ was changed to ‘the Civil War’ – after all, everyone knows there was only ever one of those, don’t they? And his references to Paris were changed to ‘Paris, France.’ We wouldn’t want that one to get mixed up, would we?

And now we come to the Dead Cat Poem. But first we leave the US and head over to the UK.

Colin Thompson is an author / illustrator who was born in the UK but has lived in Australia for many years. He writes the most extraordinary children’s books. Chase up The Floods series. Chase up his delightful new picture book, Free To A Good Home. Chase up his books of wacky kids poems, mostly for grotty boys with titles like My Brother Drinks Out Of The Toilet, and The Dog’s Just Been Sick in the Honda. You can find those books here http://www.colinthompson.com/page18.htm

One of those books of poems has been published in the UK. But the publisher didn’t like some of the poems. They were dangerous and might make little English children cry. So they published the book but left out five poems. One of those poems is about a dead cat. Not just any old dead cat. A dead cat that has been run over. Oh yeah, there are two dead cat poems. The other cat went to sleep in the washing machine. You can find those poems on Colin’s website. He pretty pissed off about them being left out of the UK book. Chase them up here http://www.colinthompson.com/page19.htm

I’ve read lots of Colin’s poems. I think they are funny. I wish he was writing that stuff when I was a ten year old. They are mad, weird, and wacky. They make ten year old boys laugh out loud in class as they read them under their desk. Those boys get sent to the principal. He reads the books and laughs, but he has to obey the teacher and punish the boys. So he makes those boys stand in the corridor where they can read the poems and laugh in peace. Boys line the corridor outside the principals office every day. They go home in the afternoon and Dad says, “How was school today?” Those boys will say, “Wicked!” Dad will say, “They must have improved it since my day.”

That won’t happen in any UK or US school, I know it. But if I was principal of a school here in Australia that is exactly how I would handle it.

You know what I want to do? I want to write a book of poems for ten year old boys called, Poems About Snot and Other Stuff. It won’t sell in the US will it? I can tell that from here.

Anyway, this is a post about Parallel Import Restrictions. Keep them running! That’s what I say. Keep ‘em running hot and strong. This is the only country in the world where life makes sense. Let’s keep it that way.

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